What will new president actually do come January? Why it’s a bit of a mystery.

At a time when major issues from Syria to Obamacare remain unresolved, the campaign was dominated by an unprecedented focus on personality rather than policy.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016.

The US presidential election of 2016 will be remembered for many things, but serious discussion of issues probably isn’t one of them.

Yes, some big general public policy problems got mentioned. Immigration is a case in point. But on the whole the campaign was dominated by a focus on personality that was unprecedented, even by the nation’s already low political standards.

The actual decisions the next president will have to quickly make, from how to deal with the continuing conflicts in the Middle East to how to bolster the current slow improvement in the US economy, received an order of magnitude less attention than Hillary Clinton’s emails or Donald Trump’s statements about women.

Thus the actual opening agenda of the 45th president of the United States may remain unusually undefined.

“I cannot imagine or remember an election that has been less focused on any issue of any substance whatsoever. Instead we have driven ourselves entirely into a popularity contest between the class bully and the teacher’s pet,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

This popularity contest did occasionally widen into a discussion of larger problems of American life. As Dr. Engel notes, at many points the campaign touched on race, gender, ethnicity, and income inequality. (We’re talking about the months of the general election here, so all you Bernie Sanders voters, please note.)

WikiLeaks’ publication of internal Clinton campaign emails likely stolen by Russian hackers did provide a rare glimpse into the actual internal workings of US public and political operations.

“We’ve seen a whole lot of how the sausage is made in Washington over money and influence,” says Engel.

What didn’t get mentioned much in the Clinton/Trump debates or in Trump rallies or Clinton speeches was the unavoidable choices the next POTUS must make on detailed and boring questions of actual governance.

Take health care. Obamacare is dogged by rising prices and narrowing choices for consumers as insurers back out of market exchanges – what’s the next president going to do? How does the next president envision the evolution of the larger US structure of health providers in the context of the Affordable Care Act’s struggles?

“What are we to make of this relatively small amount of debate on the most significant social legislation of the past half-century?” asked Employment Benefits Advisor, a trade publication for professionals, in an election eve story.

Or employment – the numbers have improved for 73 months straight. How do we keep that going? Donald Trump has offered the traditional Republican response of a tax-cut plan, but it seems perfunctory, and he doesn’t mention it much on the stump. The Clinton campaign has lots of white papers offering such nostrums as increased national infrastructure spending, but how will she get stuff like that passed through a House that is likely to remain in GOP hands, and a Senate that will be Republican or barely Democratic?

There’s been nothing like the austerity versus stimulus debate of the 2008 and 2012 elections and their intervening midterms, asserted liberal economist Paul Krugman recently on his Twitter feed.

“When this election is finally over, I’m planning to celebrate with an orgy of . . . serious policy discussion. Won’t it be great?” tweeted Mr. Krugman in late October.

It’s true that complaining about lack of attention to issues is something of a “gasbag lament,” as Tommy Craggs wrote in Slate earlier this week. It’s the sort of thing that think tank fellows say over finger sandwiches at lunch policy discussions. It’s an editorial board point, a pundit’s perceived problem. Guilty as charged!

But US presidents play many roles. They are comforter-in-chief at times of national crisis. They are cheerleaders and advocates for national innovation. They lead national discussions on important issues.

But they’re also the lead on lots of specific national policy solutions. That’s not necessarily how the Founders designed the US system, with a chief executive who is relatively weak in terms of legislation. It’s how US politics has evolved, though. What will those solutions be? That’s the hole so far in the 2016 discussion.

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