Regardless of whom Americans pick on Election Day to head the government and write the laws, the challenges that elected leaders face will be the same.
National problems are complex. Causes can be hard to identify. Proposed solutions have to run an interest-group gauntlet before consensus can be achieved. And this in a society in which the quality of public discourse, as well as citizens’ trust in institutions, have been damaged.
Here’s a look at some of the challenges the next president and Congress will face.
Whom can you trust?: Distrust of institutions
Americans do not trust the world outside their door much anymore.
For over two decades, poll after poll has documented a steady decline in public confidence in the basic institutions of American life - schools, churches, news media, banks, business, unions and, most of all, government.
“They are at record lows. There is no clear indication that they have bottomed out and are rebounding. If anything, they seem to be slipping lower,” said Tom Smith, director of the general social survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. “One is close to being able to characterize it as a crisis of confidence.”
Since 1973, the NORC has taken an annual survey of public trust in 13 basic American institutions. This year’s survey shows the trend continues: Congress remains at the bottom. Next lowest in public esteem is the executive branch of the federal government.
Some 43 percent of Americans say they have “hardly any confidence” in either. That level of distrust is more than twice as high as when the NORC began this index in 1973.
In public life, the roots of cynicism are usually traced to the twin tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate. A similar connection may explain the loss of faith in other institutions, however.
“This is basically a judgment on the performance of the institutions,” Smith said. The public quite rationally loses faith in an institution when it fails to do its job as expected, and especially when incompetence is magnified by scandal.
Banks lost public confidence, for example, when the savings-and-loan scandals exploded in the late 1980s. Law sank in public esteem when O.J. Simpson’s experience defined justice in America. “Beyond that,” Smith said, “it has become pretty clear to me that over the last 10 years, the American people have bought into the idea that their leadership is troubled, and that America suffers more problems than it used to. This has become what they expect … This suggests that the basic American trait of optimism about the future may be eroding.”
This spreading sourness of spirit is corrosive to the notion of shared community, which is essential to binding a diverse people into a unified nation. Leaders talk of optimism, moral values and the shared American dream, but these surveys suggest that the public awaits performance and results.
Haves and have-nots: Income inequity
Beneath the surface of today’s general prosperity, a less-visible economic trend may be more consequential for the long-term health of American society, which is that the gap dividing rich from poor is growing ever larger.
In the 1960s, economic growth raised the income of every social class; the cliche held that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But since 1973 that has not been true; almost all gains from growth have flowed to the well-off, while the bottom 20 percent lost ground and the middle class only inched ahead.
Political rhetoric blames many forces - Reagan’s tax cuts, corporate downsizing, global trade, declining unions and immigration among them - but they had only modest impact, according to most economists, citing studies by the Census Bureau and such reputable think tanks as the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corp.
Most economists believe that growing income inequality stems instead from trends that have little to do with government.
The biggest single cause is changing family structures. The number of families headed by a single mother, which are much more likely to be poor, grew by more than 70 percent from 1973 to 1989. At the opposite end of the income scale, a growing number of married-couple families contain two earners. If both hold professional jobs, their joint income is often quite high.
Technological trends also contributed heavily; high-skill jobs pay increasingly well, while low-skill jobs steadily lose value. Earnings of the lowest-paid male workers fell 20 percent from 1979 to 1994, while pay for men in the top 20 percent grew 11 percent.
Whatever the cause, this trend could spell long-term trouble for a democracy with a strong egalitarian ideal. “The bigger the gap, the more people are going to look at each other with suspicion,” said Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “It splits society down the middle on class lines.”
Actually it splits society more like 80-20; only a minority is actually losing ground, says Gary Burtless, an economist who specializes in this field at Brookings. The danger is less one of potential political instability, Burtless believes, than of growing moral callousness to our fellow citizens.
A people of many hues: Race and ethnicity
Even as the nation continues to struggle with deep-rooted racial discrimination against African-Americans, the complexion of the United States is rapidly changing.
The rise in immigration from Asia and Latin America has added new dimensions to the race relations debate. Hispanics - who include people of different races and nationalities - are projected to account for nearly one in four Americans by 2050.
Moreover, an increase in interracial marriage means that younger generations have significantly greater numbers of mixed-race people. Many see themselves as neither black nor white. Lately, the Census Bureau has been considering adding a mixed-race category to its population surveys.
Affirmative action did not emerge as a major issue during the presidential election. But court challenges to affirmative action policies and political efforts by opponents are likely to continue.
Kenyon Burke, a race relations consultant and former director of social action for the National Council of Churches, said he believes government and private efforts to redress discrimination will increasingly be aimed at lower-income minority people. The emergence of a black middle-class argues for a shift, he said.
“Public policy initiatives are going to address the poor, whoever they are,” said Burke. “It’s going to be more and more around class rather than ethnicity.”
Progress in race relations is likely to be difficult and gradual. The potential for conflict is high. The issue is a high-wire act for political leaders.
“We’re going to have to begin to look at racial groups in other than a monolithic manner,” said Kenyon. “But the core of race relations in this country remains the unresolved situation between black and white.”
The bill comes due: Aging baby boomers
Medicare and Social Security - the underpinnings of a middle-class lifestyle in old age - face serious financing shortfalls. That’s probably the most urgent policy challenge on the federal government’s horizon.
Medicare is in trouble right now - its hospital fund is projected to go bankrupt in 2001. Social Security’s problems will emerge around 2010, as the first of 78 million baby boomers retire. And that’s not all:
With people living into their 80s, the need for long-term care is constantly growing. Political demands for even more government aid to the elderly are sure to arise.
Paying the entire bill for the boomers’ retirement by borrowing would send the deficit soaring and hobble the economy. Raising payroll taxes on workers and employers by itself would lead to record levels of taxation. Employers facing stiffer payroll taxes would probably be more reluctant to hire a new worker.
Some mix of benefit cuts and tax increases is likely to shore up the programs. Future retirees may not have it as good as today’s elderly.
For Medicare, options include scaling back payments to hospitals and doctors, raising beneficiary premiums, nudging more beneficiaries into cost-conscious managed-care plans, and charging more to better-off retirees. For Social Security, options include raising the retirement age, taxing benefits, reducing cost-of-living adjustments, and requiring people to save more for retirement.
Polls show that many of these options are extremely unpopular. Leaders of both parties have avoided a frank discussion of the problems, and instead tried to reassure voters about their commitment to Medicare and Social Security. Politicians want a bipartisan commission to make recommendations on Medicare.
The education deficit America spends more than $250 billion a year in K-12 education, but many parents, teachers, and public officials are unhappy with the result.
Per-pupil spending has increased by 54 percent since the mid-1970s - even after adjusting for inflation. Yet SAT scores have barely budged, and the earning power of a high school diploma has plummeted.
More than ever, young people are seeking two- and four-year college degrees to help them land middle-class jobs. Advanced skills are a must in the new economy.
But the high cost of a college education leaves many graduates burdened with debt as they enter the years in which people normally marry, buy first homes, and start families.
What the president and Congress can do is far from clear.
At the college level, the federal government is the biggest source of financial aid for students, and that role is likely to expand somewhat.
But at the K-12 level - where big improvements appear to be needed - the feds are second-string players. Primary and secondary education remains mainly a local and state responsibility, though federal money is important in individual school districts.
A business-backed effort to create a single set of national standards for K-12 education has been derailed by social conservatives. Instead, states will create their own standards - and some may be toothless.
Experts say Washington shouldn’t try to dictate, but it can help by supporting ideas that work.
“To think that you can create policy in Washington that connects to the classroom is just rhetoric,” said Anne Lieberman, a school reform expert at Columbia University in New York. “You can’t mandate what matters the most - and that is to engage people and get them committed to change.”