I was walking across campus last week and noticed the leaves on the magnificent elm tree in front of White-Gravenor starting to turn yellow. The thought occurred to me that by the time those leaves begin to turn yellow next year, so much will have changed. It is often possible to foresee with some degree of confidence how things will be in the relatively short period of a year, but this coming year may be the exception.
First, a new president and a new Congress will have just been elected. The American people will likely be sick of political campaigning, with the primaries so early and the two candidates probably decided by the end of February. They will have almost nine months to attack one another. They will be battered, maybe badly wounded politically, and the American public will surely be turned off by politics. (Political consultants, pollsters and television stations, however, will have greatly enlarged bank accounts.)
The election will have made history if that president is a woman or African-American. And the new president, if a Democrat, may have a Senate and House of Representatives run by the same party. That doesn’t guarantee that governing is easier, but it may make the presidential `honeymoon’ after the election somewhat longer.
But what a perfect storm that president will face. It seems likely that the economy will be the big issue by next fall. If the housing market continues to collapse, taking the stock-market, credit, investment and job markets with it — all combined with rising gasoline prices — we could be in a serious recession (graduating seniors, take note!). Whatever happens to the economy, there will be difficult economic issues to face, including a ballooning deficit as the students of the 1960s and 1970s — the retired “baby boomers” of today – start collecting Social Security and needing more Medicare expenditures. But in order to deal with these problems, the next president will have to raise taxes or cut other government programs and hope the economy will take off. But raising taxes in a recession is likely to make it worse, not better.
Americans continue to see increased taxes as not only taking money out of their pockets (true) but also feeding a bloated state (we can debate that). However, the closing down of the government in 1996 reminded many Americans that they actually needed the services the government provided. And Americans still demand money for their favorite causes (health care, roads, student loans, agricultural subsidies, university research) so they resist any cuts in those programs and usually demand more expenditures on them. So we can’t get away from the old saying by Russell Long, one of those many colorful politicians from Louisiana, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.” It applies to cuts in budgets too.
Then there is the issue of climate change. We all know it’s a worsening problem and that we need to act now, but we don’t want to pay the price in more expensive energy today for benefits long into the future. This is a political equation no politician likes but the next president will surely have to tackle.
Health care is also a major problem — it is the most expensive in the world but leaves a significant portion of Americans uninsured, surely a morally repugnant situation in a country as rich as ours. The system is excessively complex and bureaucratic (that is private bureaucracy in this case) with all sorts of perverse incentives for medical personnel. It is urgent that health care be reformed, but how?
Education is also right up there in the list of urgent problems: All Americans want quality education for their children — it’s the best way to become part of the American dream. But the big reform of the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind, with all of its testing, seems to have hit the rocks. So what next?
Don’t forget the immigration issue. Here is a real collision of values. Many millions of hardworking, poor immigrants, mostly from Latin America, have entered the United States illegally to take jobs that Americans do not want but the economy requires to be done. Many have been here for years and have American children and roots in our communities, so sending them all home is not just heartless but probably impossible. Denying them and their children essential services is also heartless and probably counterproductive since it can lead to poor health and education and ensuing social problems here. But they broke the law entering the country illegally. What does the next president do? And how to get enough political consensus to do it?
Oh, did I forget Iraq? The next president will have to figure out how to get U.S. troops out of that quagmire without making conditions worse for the Iraqis — indeed, surely there is a moral compunction to try to make things a lot better for them (including permitting those into the United States who are in particular danger because of their support of us). Solving the Iraq problem will involve negotiating with Iraq’s neighbors, including the Syrians and Iranians, and that won’t be easy especially with the regional fears of the Sunnis (e.g., in Saudi Arabia) that Shias are on the march. Then there is the venerable Israeli-Palestinian problem — one almost certainly also left to the next president — which, if ignored, almost always deteriorates into violence and human suffering but which has defeated the efforts of all previous presidents to resolve.
And Afghanistan and the war on terror, of course (can we rename the war on terror please since it is not really a war?) and Guantanamo and associated problems of human and legal rights versus security. The big imponderable between now and the election is whether we are attacked again by terrorists, which could turn the campaign – and not to mention our lives – upside down.
Then there are the ongoing challenges of dealing with a rising China, with a nuclear and unstable Pakistan, with world poverty, with worldwide drug and criminal networks, with HIV/AIDS at home and abroad and so on.
I cannot think of a time short of the months before the Civil War when a new president faced more urgent and difficult problems. But at least Abraham Lincoln faced one big, immediate problem. And he knew more or less what he wanted to do about it. Our next president faces a whole set of major problems, many of which do not have obvious solutions and on which Americans are divided. And many of these are the worse kind of political problems to have — the costs of addressing them are immediate and concrete and the benefits are long term and uncertain. And in our political system, it is difficult to address big problems short of a crisis which makes the costs of not addressing them compelling.
So pity the next president and hope that he or she has the leadership qualities and the luck to tackle at least some of these challenges (since it will be surely impossible to deal with all of them).
This is my last column. I have enjoyed being on the Hoya staff and working with its editors. It was fun to have students correct my mistakes, and they have done an excellent job. Thanks for the opportunity, Hoya Hoyas!
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. This is the final installment of Behind the Podium.