A selection of issues at stake in the presidential election and their impact on Americans, in brief:
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 neighbourhoods, 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 offences. 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 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.
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 $580bn 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 drop-out 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 $20bn 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.
Role of government
It’s the Goldilocks conundrum of American politics: Is the government too big, too small or just right? Every four years, the presidential election offers a referendum on whether Washington should do more or less.
Donald Trump favours cutting regulation and has promised massive tax cuts, but his plans are expected to add trillions to the national debt. Unlike most conservatives, he supports eminent domain and has spoken positively about government-run health care. And don’t forget that massive border wall. Hillary Clinton has vowed new spending on education and infrastructure that could grow government, too. She strongly supports “Obamacare,” which most small government proponents see as overreach.
At its heart, the debate about government’s reach pits the desire to know your basic needs will be cared for against the desire to be left alone. For the last few decades, polls have found Americans generally feel frustrated by the federal government and think it’s wasteful. A smaller government sounds good to a lot of people until they’re asked what specific services or benefits they are willing to do without.
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 bn trade deficit with China — $500bn 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.
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.
The ninth justice will push the court left or right, depending on whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump becomes president. President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to take Scalia’s seat, but the Republican Senate has refused to consider Garland’s nomination, in an effort to prevent a liberal court majority.
Tensions have been rising over China’s assertive behaviour 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 behaviour. 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 neighbours 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.
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
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.