From the Director: Hindsight and foresight in 2020

From the Director: Hindsight and foresight in 2020

Big ideas in next year's election

We at the Miller Center have been looking ahead to election year 2020, where hindsight can serve as foresight. 

We believe that the presidency is at a crossroads—so much so that we have been examining how this moment compares with other pivotal points in American history. Over the coming 14 months, we think President Trump faces a series of choices that will shape the rest of this presidency…and the next one. What can history tell us about what lies ahead? 

To answer that question, our experts will examine at least five major choices facing the nation between now and election day 2020, through their writings, media outreach, and public events.

1. Presidents and opportunity. At the current moment, the economy is growing. That almost always benefits incumbent presidents. Since World War II, 8 out of 11 incumbents have run and won. Each winner rode a growing economy to victory: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. President Trump remains popular in his party after the two-year mark—at 87 percent, second only to George W. Bush. 

Still, a challenger can win. Even with this economy, President Trump’s job approval rating has hovered in the low 40 percent range. Recession fears are growing, and if the economy turns sour, then what? Carter defeated Ford in 1976, Reagan upset Carter in 1980, and Clinton beat Bush 41 in 1992 using the same formula: by promising change, amidst a bad economy. Each of those defeated presidents faced a primary challenger (Reagan, Ted Kennedy, and Pat Buchanan, respectively), before going on to lose in November. President Trump faces both primary challengers and a slowing economy.

Amidst economic uncertainty, we are particularly fortunate to have leading experts on the history of financial crises.  

We also will look at health care spending, which makes up more than 25 percent of the federal budget and is the biggest deficit-driver. The president ran on the promise to end Obamacare. Democrats now seem to be debating whether Obamacare went far enough. In spring 2020, led by our own Guian McKee, we expect to explore this issue in even greater detail, including assessing the range of proposals for what to do next.

2. The American creed: immigration, citizenship, and identity. The president’s immigration policies have disrupted reforms embraced by Presidents Reagan and Bush 43, not to mention Clinton and Obama. President Trump has reshaped the GOP, driving many business-minded and Latino GOP voters away, while attracting working-class whites in the Heartland. His rhetoric and policies on immigration, race, and religion have galvanized Democratic opposition. 

We will look at a series of immigration-related topics, starting with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Sonia Nazario on September 18. We will further examine what makes us all Americans, and how our diverse political identities—based on race, religion, gender, and region—live alongside our common values and goals. In particular, through our work with the UVA Democracy Initiative—and an emerging Institute for Democracy—we will explore how our individual identities shape who we are as a people.

3. China and trade. The president’s emerging trade war with China also disrupts GOP orthodoxy. His tariff policies and his ordering of companies to consider leaving China have sparked business anxiety. And his handling of the ongoing Hong Kong crisis is being watched carefully around the world.

Surprisingly, perhaps, few primary opponents have challenged the substance of his trade war. Many politicians share real worries about China’s actions at home and abroad. Democrats have largely been silent, avoiding angering blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt. 

To help understand these debates, we’ve added two great new members to our already strong team on China—Evan Feigenbaum and another still to be announced...stay tuned—who will write, participate in events, and provide ongoing commentary across the year about the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

4. Democratic statecraft. Continuous disruption extends to the wider U.S. foreign-policy agenda. Other presidents have sparred with NATO and G-7 partners—going back to Eisenhower’s break with France and Britain over the Suez Crisis in 1956.  President Trump has taken it beyond that to regularly challenge the U.S.-led international system built by both parties in the aftermath of World War II. The president also has flipped the script on multilateral efforts to end nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, instead opting to rely on his own ability to make a deal. Trump also seems committed to ending the war in Afghanistan, and has so far avoided military conflict in a number of hot zones. 

While he has been criticized by members of both parties, these policies are more popular than many politicians perceive. A recent public opinion study found growing support for isolationist and protectionist policies and “little interest in the processes and tactics of foreign policy or the workings of international alliances and institutions.”  

In the coming year, Miller Center experts will help assess this disruption. Our own Philip Zelikow will appear with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss their new book on the diplomacy that helped bring a peaceful end to the Cold War  and to talk about what, if anything, is still relevant for the current moment. In spring 2020, we will host two conferences: Marc Selverstone—a leading expert on the Vietnam War—will bring some of the country’s top thinkers on efforts to end long-fought wars. And Todd Sechser will host a workshop that brings together world-renowned experts on nuclear weapons policies. 

5. Presidents and the Constitution. Finally, the coming election year will test whether our system for choosing a president is effective and secure. Foreign efforts to disrupt our elections have become commonplace, putting our intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and local election officials on guard. The media also has been put on the defensive for its accuracy and impartiality as it scrambles to both cover and compete with an ever-growing number of news sources. And in the centennial year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women voters and elected officials are likely to play a major role, as they did in the 2018 midterms

Fittingly, we will release a new book in fall 2020 on previous moments when presidents have faced constitutional crossroads, just as the nation faces a potential constitutional crisis if the 2020 outcome is contested. 

Needless to say, this is not a small agenda. But given our depth of knowledge in presidential history, and our breadth of expertise from across the University of Virginia, we are reminded of the famous line: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”