Issues at stake in US presidential election

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A selection of issues at stake in the presidential election and their impact on Americans and the world

Executive authority

“Your Majesty” isn’t in the American political lexicon. But when a president sets a major policy by edict, skirting Congress, it sets off a debate that traces back to the time of kings and queens—and the Founding Fathers who rejected the authority of the crown. Lawmakers cry foul when a president, especially of the other party, usurps their authority through executive action. Defenders say it can be the only way to get something done when Congress is gridlocked.

President Barack Obama has used executive authority expansively, most notably on immigration.

Donald Trump says he’d make sure Obama’s “unconstitutional actions” never come back. But some Republicans worry that Trump, too, might pursue an “imperial presidency.” Hillary Clinton supported Obama’s unilateral move to curb deportation of millions of immigrants in the US country illegally. The Supreme Court deadlocked in June over the major portion of the immigration executive actions, effectively killing the plan for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Minimum wage

Modest income gains, strikes by fast-food workers, the rapid growth of low-paying jobs while middle-income work shrinks. These factors have combined to make the minimum wage a top economic issue for the 2016 campaign.

Millions would benefit from higher pay, of course. But an increase in the minimum wage would also boost costs for employers and may slow hiring.

Hillary Clinton supports raising the minimum wage at least to $12 an hour, even higher at state and local levels. Donald Trump has said he supports an increase to $10, but thinks states should “really call the shots.” The federal minimum wage now is s $7.25.

Why the momentum for higher minimums? The typical household’s income has fallen 2.4 percent since 1999. Low-paying industries, such as retail, fast food and home health-care aides, are among the largest and fastest-growing. And many low-wage workers are older, have families and are probably more willing to demand higher pay.

Refugees

With millions of Syrians displaced by a years-long war and hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe, countries around the world are being pressed to help resettle people seeking refuge.

The United States pledged to accept 10,000 such refugees by the end of the budget year in September and did so, a month early.

Republicans have balked at the idea of allowing people from Syria into the United States and Donald Trump has called for a halt on refugee resettlement for them. He says vetting of these refugees is inadequate.

Hillary Clinton has pledged to expand the Syrian refugee program and allow as many as 65,000 such refugees into the United States.

The fate of the program almost certainly hinges on the outcome of the November election.

Education

Education is a core issue not just for students and families, but for communities, the economy, and the nation as a global competitor.

The country has some 50 million K-12 students. Teaching them, preparing them for college and careers, costs taxpayers more than $580 billion a year, or about $11,670 per pupil per year. A better education usually translates into higher earnings.

And while high-school graduations are up sharply and dropout rates down, the nation has a ways to go to match the educational outcomes elsewhere. American schoolchildren trail their counterparts in Japan, Korea, Germany, France and more.

For students seeking higher education, they face rising college costs and many are saddled with debt.

Hillary Clinton has proposed free tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for working families with incomes up to $125,000—free for families, that is, not for taxpayers. Donald Trump has focused on school choice, recently proposing to spend $20 billion in his first year in office to expand programs that let low-income families send their children to the local public, private, charter or magnet school that they think is best.

Immigration

The future of millions of people living in the US illegally could well be shaped by the presidential election. The stakes are high, too, for those who employ them, help them fit into neighborhoods, or want them gone.

Republican Donald Trump at first pledged to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Not only that, he’d build a wall all along the Mexican border.  But his position has evolved. He’s sticking to his vow to build the wall and make Mexico pay. But he’s no longer proposing to deport people who have not committed crimes beyond their immigration offenses. Still, he’s not proposing a way for people living in the country illegally to gain legal status.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, in contrast, would overhaul immigration laws to include a path to citizenship, not just legal status.

Illegal immigration has been at nearly 40-year lows for several years. It even appears that Mexican migration trends have reversed, with more Mexicans leaving the US than arriving. Billions of dollars have been spent in recent years to build fencing, improve border technology and expand the Border Patrol.

Nonetheless the Mexican border remains a focal point for those who argue that the country is not secure.

Climate change

It’s as if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton live on two entirely different Earths: one warming, one not. Clinton says climate change threatens us all, while Trump repeatedly tweets that global warming is a hoax.

Measurements and scientists say Clinton’s Earth is much closer to the warming reality. And it is worsening.

The world is on pace for the hottest year on record, breaking marks set in 2015, 2014, and 2010. It is about 1.8 degrees warmer than a century ago.

But it’s more than temperatures. Scientists have connected man-made climate change to deadly heat waves, droughts and flood-inducing downpours.

Studies say climate change is raising sea levels, melting ice and killing coral. It’s making people sicker with asthma and allergies and may eventually shrink our bank accounts.

Debt

The federal government is borrowing about one out of seven dollars it spends and steadily piling up debt. Over the long term, that threatens the economy and people’s pocketbooks.

Most economists say rising debt risks crowding out investment and forcing interest rates up, among other problems. At the same time, rapidly growing spending on federal health-care programs like Medicare and the drain on Social Security balances caused by the rising tide of baby boomers could squeeze out other spending, on roads, education, the armed forces and more.

It takes spending cuts, tax increases or both to dent the deficit. Lawmakers instead prefer higher spending and tax cuts.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has focused on the debt.

Trump has promised massive tax cuts that would drive up the debt and he’s shown little interest in curbing expensive benefit programs like Medicare.

Clinton, by contrast, is proposing tax increases on the wealthy. But she wouldn’t use the money to bring down the debt. Instead, she’d turn around and spend it on college tuition subsidies, infrastructure and health care.

Trade

In this angry election year, many American voters are skeptical about free trade—or hostile to it.

The backlash threatens a pillar of US policy:  The United States has long sought global trade.

Economists say imports cut prices for consumers and make the US more efficient.

But unease has simmered, especially as American workers faced competition from low-wage Chinese labor. Last year, the US ran a $334-billion trade deficit with China—$500 billion with the entire world.

The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are both playing to public suspicions about trade deals. Hillary Clinton broke with President Barrack Obama by opposing an Asia-Pacific trade agreement that she had supported as secretary of state.

Donald Trump vows to tear up existing trade deals and to slap huge tariffs on Chinese imports.

But trade deals have far less impact on jobs than forces such as automation and wage differences between countries. Trump’s plans to impose tariffs could start a trade war and raise prices.

Supreme Court

The ideological direction of the Supreme Court is going to tip one way or the other after the election. The outcome could sway decisions on issues that profoundly affect everyday Americans: immigration, gun control, climate change and more.

The court has been operating with eight justices since Antonin Scalia died in February. His successor appears unlikely to be confirmed until after the election, at the earliest. The court is split between four Democratic-appointed, liberal justices and four conservatives who were appointed by Republicans—although Justice Anthony Kennedy has sided with the liberals on abortion, same-sex marriage and affirmative action in the past two years.

China

Tensions have been rising over China’s assertive behavior in the seas of Asia. The US also accuses China of unfair trading practices and cyber theft of business secrets.

Donald Trump says that the sheer volume of trade gives the US leverage over China. He accuses China of undervaluing its currency to make its exports artificially cheap and proposes tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese imports if Beijing doesn’t change its behavior. Such action could risk a trade war that would make many products in the US more expensive.

Clinton says the US needs to press the rising Asian power to play by international rules, whether on trade or territorial disputes.

While many of China’s neighbors are unnerved by its military build-up, the wider world needs the US and China to get along, to tackle global problems. The US and China are also economically inter-dependent, and punishment by one party could end up hurting the other.

Opioid epidemic

More than 28,000 Americans died from overdosing on opioids in 2014, a record high for the nation.

That’s 78 people per day, a number that doesn’t include the millions of family members, first responders and even taxpayers who feel the ripple of drug addiction in their daily lives.

A rise in prescription painkillers is partially to blame: The sale of these drugs has quadrupled since 1999, and so has the number of Americans dying from an addiction to them. When prescriptions run out, people find themselves turning to the cheaper alternative heroin and, increasingly, the even more deadly drug fentanyl.

Recovering addicts and their family members are increasingly speaking out, putting a face on drug addiction and lessening the stigma surrounding it. But dollars for prevention, treatment and recovery services are still hard to come by, leaving many people waiting weeks or months to find the treatment they’re seeking. Meantime, family members empty bank accounts in search of help, while law-enforcement officers and emergency rooms serve as a first line of defense.

Donald Trump says the wall he wants to build along the southern border is essential to stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the country. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, pledges to spend $10 billion to increase access to prevention, treatment and recovery services, among other things.

North Korea

Pariah state North Korea could soon be capable of targeting America with nuclear weapons. What can the US do to stop it?

Diplomacy and economic sanctions have not worked so far. North Korea’s isolation is deepening, but it has continued to conduct nuclear test explosions and make advances in its missile technology.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says the US can put more pressure on China to rein in its North Korean ally. He says he is willing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

Democrat Hillary Clinton wants the world to intensify sanctions as the Obama administration did with Iran, a course that eventually opened the way for a deal to contain its nuclear program.

But it will be tough to force North Korea back to negotiations that aim at its disarmament in exchange for aid. Kim views atomic weapons as a security guarantee for his oppressive regime

Health care

About 9 in 10 Americans now have health insurance, more than at any time in history. But progress is incomplete, and the future far from certain. Rising costs could bedevil the next occupant of the White House.

Millions of people previously shut out have been covered by President Barack Obama’s health-care law. No one can be denied coverage anymore because of a pre-existing condition. But “Obamacare” remains divisive, and premiums for next year are rising sharply in many communities.

Whether Americans would be better off trading for a GOP plan is another question. A recent study found that Donald Trump’s proposal would make 18 million people uninsured. GOP congressional leaders have a more comprehensive approach, but key details are still missing.

Overall health-care spending is trending higher again, and prices for prescription drugs—new and old—are a major worry.

Medicare’s insolvency date has moved up by two years—to 2028.

Hillary Clinton would stay the course, adjusting as needed. Republicans are united on repealing Obama’s law, but it’s unclear how they would replace it.

America and the world

How the US uses its influence as the world’s sole superpower is a central feature of presidential power.

It can mean taking the country to war—to protect the homeland or to defend an ally. Or it can mean using diplomacy to prevent war. It can affect US jobs, too, as choices arise either to expand trade deals or to erect barriers to protect US markets.

In the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, America’s role in the world is a point of sharp differences. Each says the US must be the predominant power, but they would exercise leadership differently. Trump calls his approach “America first,” meaning alliances and coalitions would not pass muster unless they produced a net benefit to the US. Clinton sees international partnerships as essential tools for using US influence and lessening the chances of war.

These divergent views could mean very different approaches to the military fight and ideological struggle against the Islamic State, the future of Afghanistan and Iraq, the contest with China for influence in Asia and the Pacific, and growing nervousness in Europe over Russian aggression.