Immigration: Future On The Fence
Perhaps no pressing national issue has been so neglected by the U.S. government as illegal immigration. Sure, construction's begun on a border fence and Immigration agents have stepped up workplace raids. But such measures barely bandage the problem. The next president will confront a complex scenario: more than 12 million undocumented immigrants, an additional flow of about 500,000 per year, social services around the country strained by the influx and public fury at government failure to fix it. Count on the situation to get worse. As immigrants continue to bypass traditional gateway cities and settle in smaller communities ill-equipped to handle them, the backlash will likely intensify. And with the economy in a tailspin, "many Americans will look for a scapegoat," says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
There's no shortage of opinion about what to do. Some argue for beefing up border security with enhanced surveillance technology. Yet that will do little to address the estimated 40 percent of undocumented immigrants who enter the country legally and overstay their visas, says Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Others clamor for the government to deport illegal immigrants—a prescription most experts consider unrealistic. For many, the sensible solution is a comprehensive immigration-reform package that includes enhanced border security, a temporary-worker program and a path to legalization for the undocumented. Local communities, adds Singer, will also need more help to relieve the burden that the new arrivals place on their infrastructure.
Yet the political climate doesn't favor getting much done. Republicans have adopted harsher stances to appease their right-wing base, and many Democrats fear venturing near such a divisive issue. After Congress's failure last year to strike a deal on an immigration-reform package, opponents are feeling even more emboldened. "It will be difficult to pass anything," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants' rights group. "The debate will get uglier, and the political class will be even more polarized and paralyzed." That's not a way to do what many polls show a majority of Americans want: a reform package similar to the one Congress debated last year. "There are no easy answers," says Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, "but there will be an opportunity that will require some leadership and skillful politics." Two qualities that have been lacking in this debate for too long.
—Jamie Reno, Sarah Kliff And Arian Campo-Flores
Foreign Policy: Where Do We Begin?
Depending on your point of view, President Bush will leave the next president with the most dire foreign-policy landscape in decades, or a brave new world of hope. Bush's Democratic critics cite a long list of disasters: a badly overextended military in Iraq, the War on Terror spiraling out of control in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iran, an international economy weighed down by record oil prices, global warming left unaddressed and U.S. prestige in the world hitting rock bottom. "No president will ever have handed over a worse international situation than George W. Bush," says former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Bush and his supporters, of course, see a different horizon: terrorists on the run, a post-"surge" Iraq on its way to stability, a revived Mideast peace process, the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, nuclear deals that are dismantling weapons programs in Libya and North Korea—and, above all, the prospect that his broad "freedom agenda" in the Mideast is succeeding. "There is no doubt in my mind when history is written, the final page will say: victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world," the president recently told cheering U.S. troops in Kuwait.
Whatever history's ultimate judgment, there is little doubt that whoever is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, will face a plethora of crises crying out for quick resolution. Iraq will no doubt head the list; even under the best-case scenario, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will still be there. The ongoing stalemate over Iran's nuclear ambitions will likely remain an urgent issue as well: Tehran is expected to have enough centrifuges running to obtain a bomb by midway through the next administration's first term. There is also the question of whether the "Annapolis process" begun by Bush—an ambitious effort to create a Palestinian state—will survive. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the next U.S. leader will have to manage the beefed-up U.S. presence—Bush has just added 3,200 Marines to the 26,000 U.S. troops there—in the face of NATO's apparent failure to take charge.
One hopeful sign is that Bush himself is beginning to prepare the ground for his successor. Whereas in his first term he seemed to go out of his way to ignore opposition, the president is trying now to create "sustainable" policies that will survive his administration—even if he is succeeded by a Democrat. Bush is negotiating a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq. He's also directed his commander, Gen. David Petraeus, to look for ways to reduce the U.S. troop presence well below the 130,000-person force expected to be remaining in July. The result is that on a number of key issues—Iraq, Iran, Mideast peace, North Korea—the next president is more likely to take up where Bush left off than to strike out boldly on his (or her) own.
Economy: A Meager Inheritance
Upon assuming office, the president becomes the chief executive officer of the U.S. economy—a chaotic, unwieldy and temperamental organization over which the boss, in fact, has little control. And it's always the unknown unknowns (hat tip, Donald Rumsfeld) that bite highflying CEOs in the rear.
There are, however, a few of what Rumsfeld might call "known knowns" that are worth considering. First, it's a near certainty that on Jan. 20, 2009, the president will face a population eager and impatient for economic growth. The last two recessions (in 1991 and 2001) each lasted eight months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But come next January, the American people won't necessarily feel flush. Companies no longer simply recall laid-off workers to factories when business turns around; they invest in productivity-boosting equipment and outsource. Which is why job growth in the aftermath of the last two recessions has been anemic. The economy began expanding in November 2001, but employment declined through the fall of 2003. Data may indicate the bus is in gear, but passengers—and their representatives—will be screaming for the driver to step on it.
The ability to further stimu-late the economy—through tax cuts or spending increases—will be constrained by a second known known: the budget deficit. Slowing economies bring higher spending—more money spent on unemployment benefits, greater demand for social services—and lower tax revenue. And so the fiscal picture will undoubtedly be worse next January than it is now. In January 1993, as Bill Clinton was poised to take office, the first Bush administration revealed data showing the projected deficit for 1997 would be $60 billion greater than expected. So whether it's making the Bush tax cuts permanent or covering uninsured children, it will be tough to follow through on campaign promises. The new president should thus be prepared for a tough internal debate—as happened in early 1993 between economic adviser Robert Rubin and Labor Secretary Robert Reich—over which priorities are affordable.
The main piece of advice? Don't succumb to self-pity. The current crises in housing and credit aren't nearly as bad as the situation that Ronald Reagan inherited in 1981, when mortgage rates were nearly 15 percent. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took the reins of, as he put it in his Inaugural Address, "a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world," in the spring of 1933, banks in 32 of the 48 states were closed, and unemployment was rampant. And yet he managed to project confidence, optimism and empathy. "It is your problem," Roosevelt said, "no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."
Health Care: A System On Life Support
The numbers are staggering, but no longer shocking: about 47 million Americans are uninsured and millions more struggle to pay expensive health-insurance premiums. Recent surveys by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a private nonprofit focused on health-care issues, find that more Americans are now worried about their health-care costs than about losing their jobs, paying their mortgages or being the victim of a terror attack. "There's a big decision for the next president about whether to make health reform a big priority," says Drew Altman, CEO of the foundation.
But the next president may not have a choice; pressure to reform the system is growing. America spends about $2 trillion annually on health care, yet it ranks poorly on a variety of key health indices. The National Coalition on Health Care describes the system as "riddled with inefficiencies, excessive administrative expenses, inflated prices, poor management, and inappropriate care, waste and fraud."
Adding to the problem: concerns that funding for research is stagnating. Last year The New England Journal of Medicine reported that, after doubling between 1998 and 2003, the budget for the National Institutes of Health was expected to decrease 3 percent this fiscal year (after adjusting for inflation). That's the first true budget reduction for the NIH since 1970. Increasing funding will be hard, given budget deficits and costly wars. At the same time, there's more pressure to provide aid for global health concerns. Last year President Bush doubled U.S. spending to fight global HIV/AIDS to $30 billion. There's reason to expect further funding increases to help rehab America's image.
The next president will also have to tackle politically sensitive subjects like stem-cell research, family planning and drug safety and oversight. He or she will have to do this with a "Grand Canyon divide between the parties," says Altman. "The differences could not be more striking." And the challenges, it seems, more monumental.
Environment: Ending The Holdout
In environmental terms, January 2009 doesn't just mark the start of a new administration in Washington, but the halfway point in the two-year process of coming up with a new international agreement to combat global warming. That clock was set at a meeting of 187 nations last month in Bali, which called for "deep cuts" in greenhouse-gas emissions—endorsed in principle by the United States, but with the caveat that the Bush administration would continue to oppose mandatory caps. So when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the scope of reductions "will have to be negotiated down the road," everyone knew what he meant: with a new president.
To take the lead on global warming, the new president must undo the skepticism and disdain toward American policy that was on display in Bali, and dates back to President Bush's renunciation in 2001 of the existing greenhouse-gas treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. And he or she will have to find a way to sell the necessary sacrifices to developing countries in a climate of diminished American political and economic clout. ("Lead, follow, or get out of the way!" the American delegation was admonished in Bali—by Papua New Guinea.) Bush at least has laid the groundwork for a reversal by his successor by finally admitting that global warming is happening and human activity plays a part in it. "I take the issue seriously," he told an end-of-year news conference, although environmental groups say that the only meaningful measure of seriousness is support for mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
The next president's job will be easier, of course, if mandatory limits are already in place a year from now. In a historic first, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security bill, which would impose most of what environmentalists say is needed—an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050—passed a committee vote last month and may be taken up by the Senate later this year. It embodies a version of the market-based "cap and trade" system that has been successful in cutting other forms of air pollution. But the bill has roughly an iceberg's chance in Bali of being signed into law in anything like its present form this year—so it could well become part of the next president's agenda.
Even without a new law, the incoming administration will be able to wield regulatory authority over emissions. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the Clean Air Act covers carbon dioxide, clearing the way for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate it. Bush quickly disavowed any such intention, but the authority is there for the next president to use. Similarly, the administration overruled an attempt by California to impose its own carbon dioxide emissions regulations. Bush's successor could reverse that decision also. As evidence grows of a warming climate, the next president will have an opportunity to move the world toward a more sustainable future. And, if the majority of climate scientists are right, it won't be just "an" opportunity. It may be the last opportunity.