Washington – With fewer than five months remaining until the presidential election on Nov. 3, developments in the United States since February have yielded four major surprises. And these unexpected developments pose four significant challenges to the new administration beginning on Jan. 20, 2021, regardless of whether the election is won by the incumbent, President Donald Trump, or his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Surprise number one was Biden’s clear victory in the South Carolina primary election on Feb. 29. Having suffered a string of losses — in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11 and the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 — Biden was literally up against the wall and would have had to withdraw from the presidential contest had he lost in South Carolina. But thanks to the support of African-American congressman Jim Clyburn and African-American voters, Biden made a miraculous comeback and won decisively with 49 percent of the popular vote.
Surprise number two is that by Super Tuesday on March 3, Biden had succeeded not only in winning several key state primaries but also in securing the endorsement of many of his erstwhile Democratic rivals, including Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Beto O’Rourke. Few had predicted this kind of unity behind one candidate so early in the primary season. Rather, most observers had expected a deeply divided party going into the national convention (then scheduled for July 13-16), with even the possibility of a “brokered” convention.
One reason Democrats unified behind Biden so early is that many in the party feared that if moderates continued their internecine battles, Bernie Sanders would win the party’s nomination. With Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, as the Democratic nominee, the chances of Trump winning reelection would improve. At least this was the lesson many Democrats derived from the election of 1972, when President Richard Nixon won reelection by a landslide against Sen. George McGovern and the election of 1984, when President Ronald Reagan won reelection by a landslide against former Vice President Walter Mondale.
The third unexpected event, not foreseen even in late March, was the devastation wreaked by COVID-19. Although public health experts had warned of the probability of a deadly pandemic hitting the U.S. in the near future, few had predicted the extent of the damage the novel coronavirus would inflict: nearly 2 million infected cases and more than 110,000 deaths as of early June. With more than 40 million jobs lost and the unemployment rate jumping from 3.5 percent to nearly 15 percent in a matter of weeks, COVID-19 represents the biggest crisis for the U.S. since World War II and the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.
The fourth event was not a surprise, but its effects were not fully foreseen. The brutal May 25 killing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed African-American male in police custody, by a white policeman, was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the ongoing racial tensions in America typified by the string of killings of unarmed African-American men by white police officers. Within days, protests and demonstrations had spread to nearly 600 cities and towns in all 50 states as well as in other countries. Thus issues of racial inequality, criminal justice and police violence against people of color, especially African-Americans, overnight became urgent issues demanding immediate attention.
Regardless of who wins on Election Day, the next U.S. administration will face huge challenges, perhaps more difficult than any administration has faced in nearly a century. Four sets of issues will require a particularly intensive allocation of time, attention and resources.
The first is how to conquer the public health crisis created by COVID-19. This requires eliminating, or at least significantly reducing, the cases of infection and stopping the deaths caused by the virus. It requires investing resources to ensure that reliable testing can be made available to all who need it. The development of a vaccine to immunize against the virus, as well as effective drugs to treat and cure patients, may be expedited by cooperation between the government and the private sector.
In addition, measures need to be taken to ensure maximum protection against a second wave of the coronavirus, which some public health experts predict may hit the U.S. in the fall. If combined with the annual influenza outbreak, the results could be daunting, requiring a new round of investment in advance in doctors, nurses, hospital facilities, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. Finally, changes will be needed to ensure that the U.S. can respond more effectively to future pandemics.
The second challenge is how to rebuild the economy from what is likely to be the worst unemployment level in decades. Certain industries, such as traditional retailing, will find it hard to recover fully from the losses created by the first round of the coronavirus, and new modes of retailing will need to be created.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans proposed huge infrastructure projects — including in transportation and, in the case of Democrats, renewable and clean energy. The next administration will almost certainly need to revive and expand such plans to help stimulate the economy and to create new jobs.
The third major challenge for the next administration is addressing the issues of racial inequality, criminal justice, and police violence against people of color, especially African-Americans. According to the Census Bureau, African-Americans earn barely three-fifths as much as non-Hispanic whites. In 2018, average black household income was $41,400, compared with $70,600 for whites. The wealth gap between blacks and whites is even greater than the income gap. According to the Federal Reserve Board in 2017, the median net worth of African-Americans was only a tenth that of non-Hispanic whites: $17,600 compared to $171,000.
COVID-19 has hit people of color particularly hard. Blacks constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but 25 percent of the deaths from the virus. In New York, for example, the deaths per 100,000 for whites is 81, but 118 for Asian Americans, 187 for Hispanics and 251 for blacks. In Chicago, blacks are five times more likely to die than whites. One factor is that blacks are more likely than whites not to have health insurance (12.2 percent uninsured versus 7.8 percent in 2018). These issues of race will almost certainly be a central issue in the presidential debates between Trump and presumptive nominee Biden.
The fourth major challenge facing the next administration is defining America’s role in the world. If Trump is reelected, he will most likely continue his “America first” approach to the world and withdraw the U.S. from more international agreements and organizations, as he has the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2017 and the World Health Organization just recently.
If Biden is elected, he will attempt to restore America’s engagement with the world and cooperate globally to combat the new coronavirus and to develop more export markets to create jobs. He will also attempt to improve the domestic infrastructure, education, research and development, and technological capabilities to enhance America’s global competitiveness in the face of a rising China.
Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is credited with writing in 1971, “Forecasting is very difficult, especially about the future.” This is certainly the case as we approach the U.S. presidential election in November. Several variables — including the coronavirus, the economy, race relations and foreign affairs — are likely to affect the outcome of the elections, not only for the White House but also for the Senate and House of Representatives. The election outcome may be uncertain, but what is certain is that whoever occupies the White House from Jan. 20 next year will have his work cut out for him.
Glen S. Fukushima is a writer based in Washington, San Francisco and Tokyo. He has served as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.