By: Perry Bacon Jr.
Presidential campaigns rarely lead to great discussions of public policy, and this one has been no exception.
But here are seven issues the candidates should be pushed to talk about, either by the press or by voters. The best opportunity for such a discussion could be the presidential debates, the first of which is on Oct. 3. (I should acknowledge Think Progress, which had its own list last week.)
1. Wage stagnation
The unusually high unemployment under Obama’s presidency is a major problem, but one both candidates have discussed and offered solutions for. But middle-income workers have essentially had more than a decade of their income stalled.
“In 2000, median family income was $66,259. In 2010, it was 6 percent lower ($62,301), constituting a “lost decade” for income growth,” the Economic Policy Institute wrote in a recent report.
Those wages have stagnated as corporate profits have hit record highs. This disparity is a huge issue affecting middle-class Americans, but has barely registered on the campaign trail.
2. High Black unemployment and low graduation rates
The African-American jobless rate, even before the recession, was double that of Whites. And at 14.1 percent, it’s a crisis in many communities. Unemployment among Black youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are actively seeking jobs is at 28 percent, compared to 15 percent for Whites. The jobless rate combined with the mortgage crisis has wiped out much of the wealth gains Blacks made during the 1990’s.
Most would argue part of that solution lies in education, but Black men in particular are struggling there too: a new report found that only 52 percent of Black males are graduating from high school, compared to 78 percent of Whites.
President Bush and Democrats agreed to the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago to address this challenge. But states long complained that law was underfunded and too rigid, and the Obama administration has effectively repealed it. What’s come in its place may be less than ideal. In Virginia, as education expert Andrew Rotherham recently wrote, under the state’s new rules “schools are expected to have 78 percent of White students and 89 percent of Asian students passing Virginia’s Standards of Learning math tests but just 57 percent of Black students, 65 percent of Hispanic students and 59 percent of low-income students.”
Less accountability for schools could lead to lower expectations for Black, Latino and low-income students, as Bush and civil rights groups once feared.
3. Gun control
The shooting of then-Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others last year and the dozen killed in a movie theater shooting in suburban Colorado in July not only didn’t result in any policy changes, but barely any discussion of gun control. A spate of killings in Chicago, America’s third-largest city, this summer have also not spurred the president or Congress to make a gun control push.
It’s not clear a ban on certain kinds of guns or high-capacity magazines would actually stop these mass shootings. As conservatives note, these deranged individuals might find other ways to carry out mass killings. But both Obama and Romney have favored stricter gun laws before, suggesting their reluctance now is more political than personal. Romney is in some ways bowing to both members of his party and the National Rifle Association, which strongly backs GOP candidates and opposes nearly all gun laws.
Democrats believe gun control is a losing issue, citing Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee during his presidential campaign after he highlighted gun control. But twelve years is a long time, and it’s hard to imagine many voters who are backing the president now but would defect from him if he proposed some kind of limited gun control measure.
The two candidates have given lip service to education. (Romney has cast it as the “civil rights issue of our era,” while the president has touted his ideas to increase student aid and the number of middle and high school teachers in math and science.)
But the American education system is confronting some major issues, as the recent teacher strike in Chicago illustrated. Is the struggle of some schools the result of bad teachers, the students they teach, parents, neighborhoods or all of the above? Should teachers be paid more to encourage more higher-achieving people to enter the profession? Is increased accountability for teachers helping? Are teachers’ unions an unnecessary major barrier to school reform?
5. The Drug War
“Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly Black and poor, are unable to get a job, a credit card or even an apartment to rent because of the lasting stigma of a criminal record for carrying an ounce of marijuana,” the New York Times wrote earlier this year.
While in office, Obama has reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine and has said he would not legalize marijuana use. But it’s unclear if he would take additional steps to limit the drug war, or what, if anything, Romney would do on an very important issue.)
6. The War on Terror
President Obama has employed a number of controversial tactics in the pursuing and killing of terrorists, mostly notably the use of unmanned military airplanes called drones. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have cast the policy as an “illegal “targeted killing” program.” It could be argued that the bi-partisan decision of Congress not to allow the closing of the military prison at Guantanomo Bay or allow the transfer of most alleged terrorists for trials in U.S. courts has effectively forced the administration to kill, rather than capture, terrorists.
Obama has not faced sustained questioning about these policies and whether they violate international law. And it’s not clear Romney would keep this structure in place if he won.
7. Affirmative action
The Supreme Court holds a hearing Oct 10 on the controversial policy and is expected to make a ruling next spring on its constitutionality. The case in particular regards a White female student who sued the University of Texas at Austin, arguing she was denied admission in part because the school’s policies allow the consideration of race and therefore unfairly favored non-White applicants.
With ex-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who provided the fifth vote to keep affirmative action in place in 2003, now replaced by the more conservative Samuel Alito, it is widely expected affirmative action will be ruled unconstitutional and banned nationwide.
The Obama administration has filed a brief in support of University of Texas’ affirmative action program. But neither the president nor Romney has not discussed the issue in detail. Would they favor class-based preferences for universities if race is not allowed to be used in admissions? If race cannot be considered, should universities still be allowed to offer preferential treatment to the children of alumni, commonly known as legacies?