A selection of issues at stake in the presidential election and their impact on Americans, in brief:
AMERICA AND THE WORLD
How the U.S. 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 U.S. jobs, too, as choices arise either to expand trade deals or to erect barriers to protect U.S. markets.
In the contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, America’s role in the world is a point of sharp differences. Each says the U.S. 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 United States. Clinton sees international partnerships as essential tools for using U.S. 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.
CHILD CARE/PAY EQUITY
In much of the country, families spend more on child care for two children than on housing. And if you’re a woman, it’s likely you earn less than your male colleagues. That’s according to the latest research, which suggests that while the economy has improved, women and their families still are struggling to make the numbers work.
Clinton wants a 12-week government-paid family and medical leave program, guaranteeing workers two-thirds of their wages up to a certain amount. Trump proposes six weeks of leave for new mothers, with the government paying wages equivalent to jobless benefits.
Both candidates propose tax relief for child-care costs.
Trump’s plan provides for a new income tax deduction for child-care expenses, other tax benefits and a new rebate or tax credit for low-income families. Clinton says no family should spend more than 10 percent of its income on child care and has called for child-care subsidies and tax relief offered on a sliding scale.
Clinton also favors forcing businesses to disclose gender pay data to the government for analysis. Trump says only that working moms should be “fairly compensated.”
Tensions have been rising over China’s assertive behavior in the seas of Asia. The United States also accuses China of unfair trading practices and cyber theft of business secrets.
Trump says the sheer volume of trade gives the United States 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 U.S. more expensive.
Clinton says the U.S. needs to press the rising Asian power to play by international rules, whether on trade or territorial disputes.
It’s as if Trump and 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 is 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.
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 will take spending cuts, tax increases or both to dent the deficit. Instead, lawmakers instead higher spending and tax cuts.
Neither Clinton nor Trump has focused on the debt.
Trump has promised massive tax cuts that would drive up the debt by billions and he has 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 would turn around and spend it on college tuition subsidies, infrastructure and health care.
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.
While high school graduations are up sharply and dropout rates down, the nation has a ways to go to match the educational outcomes elsewhere. U.S. schoolchildren trail their counterparts in Japan, Korea, Germany, France and elsewhere.
For students seeking higher education, they face rising college costs and many are saddled with debt.
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. 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.
“Your Majesty” isn’t in the U.S. 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, a Democrat, has used executive authority expansively, most notably on immigration.
Trump says he would make sure Obama’s “unconstitutional actions” never come back. But some Republicans worry Trump, too, might pursue an “imperial presidency.”
Clinton supported Obama’s unilateral move to curb deportation of millions of immigrants in the 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.
The right to bear arms is carved into the Constitution and seemingly embedded in the national DNA. But after a seemingly endless stretch of violence, Americans are confronting how far those rights extend.
Do Americans have the right to have AR-style firearms, the long guns with a military look used in the past year in several mass shootings? Should they be able to buy magazines that hold 10 or more bullets? Should every gun buyer have to pass a background check?
Trump casts himself as an ardent protector of gun rights, saying if more “good guys” were armed there would be fewer gun tragedies.
Clinton wants to renew an expired ban on assault-type weapons instituted when her husband was president. She also has called for measures to ensure background checks are completed before a gun sale goes forward, mandating such checks for gun-show sales and repealing a law that shields gun manufacturers from liability.
About nine 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 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 Trump’s proposal would make 18 million people uninsured. GOP congressional leaders have a more comprehensive approach, but key details still are missing.
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.
Overall health-care spending is trending higher again, and prices for prescription drugs – new and old – are a major worry. Also, medicare’s insolvency date also has moved up by two years – to 2028.
The future of millions of people living in the U.S. 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 Trump at first pledged to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Not only that, he would build a wall all along the Mexican border.
But his position has evolved.
He is sticking to his vow to build the wall and make Mexico pay. But he no longer is proposing to deport people who have not committed crimes beyond their immigration offenses. Still, he is not proposing a way for people living in the country illegally to gain legal status.
Democrat 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 U.S. 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.
Income inequality has surged to levels near those last seen before the Great Depression. The average income for the top 1 percent of households climbed 7.7 percent last year to $1.4 million, according to tax data. That sliver of the population saw its pay climb at almost twice the rate of income growth for the other 99 percent, whose pay averaged $48,768.
Dogged on the issue during the Democratic primaries by Bernie Sanders, Clinton has highlighted inequality in multiple speeches. She hopes to redirect more money to the middle class and impoverished. Clinton would raise taxes on the wealthy, increase the federal minimum wage, boost infrastructure spending, provide universal pre-K and offer the prospect of tuition-free college.
Trump offers a blunter message about a system “rigged” against average Americans. To bring back jobs, Trump has promised new trade deals with better terms, greater infrastructure spending than Clinton foresees and tax cuts that he says would propel stronger growth.
However, independent analysts say his budget cuts would raise deficits dramatically
The nation’s infrastructure is in need of repair and improvement, politicians generally agree. Harder to answer: How to pay for it and which projects should take priority?
Reliable infrastructure is important for the nation’s economy, safety and quality of life.
Public health can be put at risk by poor infrastructure, such as the lead-tainted pipes that contaminated the water supply of Flint, Mich.
Poorly maintained highways and congested traffic also can raise the cost of shipping goods and the price that consumers pay.
A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers projects the country will face a $1.4 trillion funding gap for its infrastructure by 2025.
Democrat Clinton wants to spend $250 billion over the next five years on public infrastructure and direct an additional $25 billion to a new infrastructure bank to help finance local projects.
Republican Trump has said he wants to spend at least double that amount on infrastructure, financed with bonds.
Whoever becomes president, it’s a staggering amount of money for the federal treasury to put out – if Congress goes along.
Last year’s nuclear deal with Tehran has removed for now the threat of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. But the deal rests on shaky ground.
The accord curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, pulling it back from atomic weapons capability in exchange for the end of many economic sanctions.
But the next president could have his or her hands full, dealing with Iran in general and the agreement in particular. Various restrictions on Iran start ending in about seven years.
For Clinton and Trump, it’s basically a question of continuity versus change.
As secretary of state, Clinton helped lay the groundwork for the Iran pact. She supports it, while taking a generally tougher tone on Iran than President Obama.
Trump hates the deal. He says he will renegotiate its terms.
Both are prepared to use force to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Tepid income growth and a smaller share of the population at work have kept many Americans anxious about jobs and the economy, seven years after the Great Recession ended.
And most jobs that pay decent wages require more education than in the past, leaving many workers feeling left behind.
Trump says he would cut regulations and taxes to spur more hiring, and renegotiate or withdraw from trade agreements to bring jobs back to the United States.
Clinton says she would spend more on roads, tunnels and other infrastructure, and make state colleges and universities tuition free to most students.
Even though hiring has been healthy for the past six years, incomes have lagged. A typical household didn’t see its income recover to pre-recession levels until just this past July. And the proportion of Americans working or looking for work remains below pre-recession levels, as some of the unemployed have given up searching for jobs.
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 in 2016.
Millions would benefit from higher pay, of course. But an increase in the minimum wage also would boost costs for employers and may slow hiring.
Clinton supports raising the minimum wage — now $7.25 an hour — at least to $12, even higher at state and local levels. Trump has said he supports an increase to $10, but thinks states should “really call the shots.”
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 more willing to demand higher pay.
Pariah state North Korea soon could be capable of targeting America with nuclear weapons. What can the United States 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 Trump says the United States can put more pressure on China to rein in its North Korean ally. He also says he is willing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.
Democrat 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.
More than 28,000 Americans died from overdosing on opioids in 2014, a record high for the nation.
That’s 78 people a day, a number that doesn’t include the millions of family members, first responders and 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.
But dollars for prevention, treatment and recovery services still are hard to come by, leaving many people waiting weeks or months to find the treatment they’re seeking.
Trump says building a wall along the southern border is essential to stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the country. Clinton, meanwhile, pledges to spend $10 billion to increase access to prevention, treatment and recovery services, among other things.
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 Trump has called for a halt on refugee resettlement for them. He also says vetting of these refugees is inadequate.
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.
Russia is reasserting itself, posing vexing questions for the United States and a presidential field seemingly split on Vladimir Putin.
After briefly looking inward during much of President Obama’s first term, Russia has returned to the international stage with force under Putin.
Russia is militarily involved in Syria, supports separatists in eastern Ukraine and areas of Georgia, and even has been accused of trying to meddle in the U.S. presidential race. At the same time, the United States has been forced to accept that working with Russia is probably the only way to achieve results on many complicated international issues. Thus, Russia was central in the Iran nuclear negotiations and is a player as well as negotiator in the Syria truce effort.
Trump advocates improved relations with Russia and has been strikingly complimentary of Putin’s strong leadership style.
Clinton has had direct negotiating experience with Putin and his aides, leaving her wary of cooperating with Moscow. She promises to stand up to Putin and deter Russian aggression in Europe.
Big changes are coming to Social Security, sooner or later.
If left to later, those changes promise to be wrenching.
The trustees who oversee the program say it has enough money to pay full benefits until 2034. At that point, Social Security will collect only enough taxes to pay 79 percent of its promised benefits. Unless Congress acts, millions on fixed incomes would get an automatic 21 percent cut in benefits.
Social Security’s financial problems might seem far off. But the longer Congress waits to act, the harder it will be to save Social Security without dramatic tax increases, big benefit cuts or some combination.
Democrat Clinton has proposed expanding Social Security benefits for widows and family caregivers. She says she would preserve Social Security by requiring “the wealthiest” to pay Social Security taxes on more of their income.
Republican Trump has promised not to cut Social Security. He has suggested he would revisit the program after his tax-cut plan boosts economic growth.
More Americans are getting buried by student debt – causing delays in home ownership, limiting how much people can save and leaving taxpayers at risk as many loans go unpaid.
Student debt now totals about $1.3 trillion. This amounts to a stunning 350 percent increase since 2005, according to the New York Federal Reserve.
More than 60 percent of the class of 2014 graduated with debt that averaged nearly $27,000, according to the College Board. Not all that taxpayer-backed debt is getting repaid. Out of the 43 million Americans with student debt, roughly 16 percent are in long-term default – a potential hit in excess of $100 billion that taxpayers would absorb.
Democrat Clinton proposes no tuition for students from families making less than $85,000 who go to an in-state, public college. Republican Trump has promised a “great” student debt plan. Its details are to come.
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 now is split between four Democratic-appointed, liberal justices and four conservatives who were appointed by Republicans. However, GOP-appointed Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy has sided with the liberals on abortion, same-sex marriage and affirmative action in the past two years.
The ninth justice will push the court left or right, depending on whether Democrat Clinton or Republican Trump becomes president. President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to take Scalia’s seat, but the GOP-controlled Senate has refused to consider Garland’s nomination, in an effort to prevent a liberal court majority.
In this angry election year, many U.S. voters are skeptical about free trade – or hostile to it.
The backlash threatens a pillar of U.S. policy: The United States long has sought global trade.
Economists say imports cut prices for consumers and make the country more efficient.
But unease has simmered, especially as U.S. workers face competition from low-wage Chinese labor. Last year, the country ran a $334 billion trade deficit with China versus $500 billion for the rest of the world.
The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are both playing to public suspicions about trade deals.
Clinton broke with President Obama by opposing an Asia-Pacific trade agreement that she had supported as secretary of state. Trump vows to tear up existing trade deals and to slap huge tariffs on Chinese imports.
However, trade deals have far less impact on jobs than forces such as automation and wage differences between the countries. Trump’s plans to impose tariffs also could start a trade war and raise prices.
Voting rights in America are in flux.
Republican-controlled legislatures are tightening voter laws, placing limits on early voting and same-day registration, and imposing new requirements for IDs at polling places.
In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That provision had required states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval to change election laws.
The issue has become highly partisan with the rapid growth of minority populations, which in recent presidential elections have tilted heavily Democratic.
The Obama Justice Department has challenged voter ID and other laws, saying they could restrict access for minorities and young people. Recent lower court rulings temporarily softened some of the toughest restrictions, but litigation remains knotted up with Supreme Court appeals likely. Bills in Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act are stalled.
Trump opposes same-day voter registration, backing laws to ensure only citizens vote. Clinton wants Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and seeks a national standard of at least 20 days of early in-person voting.
WALL STREET REGULATION
The debate over rules governing banks and the markets comes down to this: how to prevent another economic catastrophe like the Great Recession ignited by the financial crisis in 2008. That recession, the worst upheaval since the 1930s Depression, wiped out $11 trillion in U.S. household wealth and about 8 million jobs. More than 5 million families lost their homes to foreclosure.
The economic recovery over eight years has been halting and slow.
The goal behind the most radical overhaul of financial rules since the 1930s was to rein in high-risk practices on Wall Street and prevent another multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of banks. In the package of rules that Congress enacted in 2010, regulators gained new tools to shut banks without resorting to bailouts.
Risky lending also was restricted and a new federal agency was charged with protecting consumers from deceptive marketing of financial products.
Republicans and many in the business community say the restrictions have raised costs for banks, especially smaller ones. They want the overhaul law repealed. rump calls it a “disaster,” saying he would dismantle most of it.
Clinton says the financial rules should be preserved and strengthened.