The next US president will be under fire to get millions of people back to work, shrink a soaring federal debt, end the US’ longest war, unite a divided country and prevent Iran from building a bomb that could unnerve the world.
And that is just what comes after the inauguration.
The work that begins right after yesterday’s election could determine whether the White House and US Congress can keep the country from plunging back into recession in the new year. That’s because without action by the nation’s leaders, a battery of tax increases and spending cuts will kick in come January, making life harder for families and endangering the economic recovery.
Win or lose, US President Barack Obama will be in charge until Jan. 20, which means dealing with this “fiscal cliff” is his problem. However, Republican candidate Mitt Romney wants to have a significant stamp on the matter as president-elect if he wins.
The economy, stable but struggling, will drive the agenda in the next term. It touches all the core issues that the election has been about — middle-class security, job creation, home values, taxes and basic opportunity for a better life.
The next president will not be dealing with the combined chaos of a financial sector, an employment picture and a stock market in free-fall, all of which started to consume Obama even before he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
Yet the public will expect results soon.
More than 23 million people are unemployed, working part time when they want full-time jobs or out of patience looking for work. Obama and Romney have both promised a more robust rebound, but they’re deeply divided over the best ways to get there.
The new president probably will get to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice, if not up to three, as US Vice President Joe Biden has suggested. Even one such lifetime appointment could tip the ideological balance of the high court.
And the world will not wait to test the next president, either.
Iran’s years-long standoff with the West over its nuclear program is intensifying. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that allies have until next summer to stop Iran from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb. Whatever the timeline, the US president will be under pressure to rally partners, enforce already crippling sanctions and deepen the threat of military intervention to keep Iran in check, or risk seeing the US pulled into another war.
Other international crises demanding US leadership are everywhere.
Syria’s civil war has left more than 30,000 dead and counting. Israelis and Palestinians are nowhere near peace. Europe’s financial troubles threaten the US’ economic stability. Mexico’s fight against guns and drugs is on the US door step. The Arab Spring has faded into fears of instability and, in one case, left four dead Americans in Libya.
The threat of terrorism may no longer hang over daily life in the US, but it will for the president, whose most sacred job is protecting the country. And that prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Still open.
The US-led war in Afghanistan is still going, too, after more than 11 years. The US and its partners plan to end the war at the close of 2014. The president must decide when and how to pull home the 68,000 US troops who remain and whether to cut a deal with the Afghan government to leave some lasting US military presence after that.
At home, the presidential winner is likely to find struggles in dealing with Congress. Obama, the Democrat, is almost certain to be contending again with a Republican-led House of Representatives. Even if voters choose Romney, they may well keep the Senate in control of Democrats, which would limit his legislative agenda.
Indeed, the basic state of Washington politics is broken.
The next president will inherit that problem, which is often beyond the president’s ability to fix despite campaign promises, as Obama and Republican George W. Bush before him found.
Should the election be as close as polls suggest, the president next year will be leading a nation in which about half the people voted against him. Most states are so decidedly Democratic or Republican they were not even contested this year. In a country built by dreamers, hope and optimism are sagging.
The impending fiscal crisis will have a cascading effect on the next presidential term.
How it is resolved will shape the chances of serious change ahead on tax law and entitlement programs such as Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.
January is on pace to bring across-the-board spending cuts of US$109 billion, which, in real terms, would undermine the military and the core functions of government. The cuts were never intended to take effect. They were an onerous incentive for lawmakers to reach a broad deficit-reduction deal, but that never happened.
The fiscal cliff also gets its name from a series of expiring tax cuts. Romney wants to extend all the Bush-era tax cuts. Obama wants to extend them only for individuals making less than US$200,000 and married couples making less than US$250,000. The new president also will have to get Congress to increase the debt limit again to avoid a crippling default.
The debt is now above US$16 trillion, with cries from every corner to reduce that figure or risk a choking of the economy.
One of the best known challenges awaiting is simply the unknown: A drought, a bridge collapse, a mass shooting, a major oil spill, a superstorm.
It will be the job of the next president of the US, ultimately, to handle everything.