WASHINGTON — When the next president walks into the Oval Office for the first time after winning today's election he'll likely take at least a moment to savor his victory. Perhaps he'll then look at his in-box, think about the problems he'll face over the next four years - and suddenly wish the other guy had won.
A pile of tough issues from Social Security to Superfund are going to land with a thud on Bob Dole's or Bill Clinton's desk. Candidate promises to focus on tax-cutting, or building next-century bridges, are all well and good. But the reality is that the world outside the White House has a way of setting much of a president's agenda.
Many of these looming problems are predictable. Yet few have received more than a cursory mention on the campaign trail.
"We have not had the discussion we should have had about Medicare, Social Security, people without health insurance, or our nation's crumbling infrastructure," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "We haven't talked about any of these issues in a way that would let the electorate understand what our choices are over the next four years."
No. 1 on almost every expert's presidential "To Do" list is entitlements. Medicare and Social Security are big, popular programs - but they're also fiscally out of kilter and will almost certainly require adjustment during the next four years.
Medicare is in more acute trouble. Its main trust fund will be technically bankrupt by 2001 unless taxes are raised, benefits are cut, or some other adjustment is made in the system. Both Dole and Clinton have suggested a bipartisan commission to deal with this problem.
The president will have a little more room to maneuver on Social Security - but not much. The program is predicted to go bankrupt in 2028, when most baby boomers will have retired and will be collecting benefits.
Any changes made in the system should be phased in years before the crisis date, experts agree, so that the tens of millions of Americans affected will have time to adequately prepare for their retirement.
Social Security could become a hot political issue as early as late this month or early December, when the Social Security Advisory Council is likely to release a report outlining three different ways to fix the system. All three solutions reportedly would involve investing at least part of the Social Security trust fund in stocks, to obtain a higher rate of return.
"The longer we put off the solution, the tougher the solution will be," says Dr. Yung-Ping Chen, a gerontology expert at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Budget politics is also likely to take up many hours of the next president's time, as the White House must submit its fiscal year budget outline to Congress by early February.
The big budget question is this: Will Washington continue the deficit-slashing efforts that brought this year's deficit down to $107 billion, the lowest in years? Or has budget-cutting now become politically unfashionable, like House Speaker Newt Gingrich?
The most likely scenario is a continued attempt to balance the budget by some point early in the next century, according to some experts. The Republican revolution of 1994 may have burned out, but even liberal Democrats must now talk about fiscal responsibility, points out Stan Collander, a Price Waterhouse government budget analyst.
"The moon, stars, and planets may be aligning to get a budget deal done," says Mr. Collander.
Other domestic issues that are likely to be handed to the president during the next four years include:
Welfare. Thought Washington was done with welfare reform? Think again. As sweeping welfare changes go into full effect next summer many states will likely still be struggling to implement programs, and could well ask the White House for help.
President Clinton, for his part, has already proposed a large federal package of incentives to urge US business to hire people off the welfare rolls.
And if critics are right and the new law leads to an explosion of poverty, Washington will surely be asked to get reinvolved in the issue in some manner.
Crime. Violent crime overall is declining. But violent crime by juveniles is rising. Since 1984, the number of murders committed by teenagers has increased almost 200 percent.
Teen crime might become an acute problem in coming years. A demographic surge in US teenagers could make this a sleeper issue that becomes a primary crime problem for the next president.
Environment. Among the most difficult environmental issues likely to land in the White House soon is Superfund. Established in 1980, this program was supposed to clean up the nation's worst toxic waste dumps. Little work has been accomplished, however, and now the law has technically expired. The next president and Congress will struggle to rewrite it.
Climate change might also land high on a White House agenda. The annual hole in the ozone that appears over Antarctica continues to worry experts - and a December 1997 meeting has already been scheduled for Kyoto, Japan, to try to produce another international agreement intended to slow global warming.
Finally, the next president might have to deal with something Clinton has yet to experience as chief executive - a national economic recession. Many economists predict such a downturn will occur no later than 1999.
Getting through the year 2000 without a recession would in fact establish a new national record of more than a decade of economic growth. Recessions can complicate Washington's agenda in numerous ways. Voters call for action to jump-start the economy, while increases in unemployment and decreases in tax revenue cause fiscal deficits to widen.