To date, neither the presidential candidates nor their spokespeople on the campaign trail have done an adequate job of defining or addressing the specific threats America faces today — arguably the No. 1 responsibility of a president.
Americans face real, and grave, threats to our way of life, from both within and without our country's borders. The external threats might even been classified as "existential" — threats to our very survival. With the first round of presidential primaries just three months away, it is incumbent on the candidates to start address these threats — and incumbent on Americans to gauge their response.
Internal threats include spiraling drug addiction, gun violence (including suicide) and illegal immigration. The primary external threat is centered (for now, at least), on the rise and the effects of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and beyond. Secondarily, increasing Russian influence in developments at its borders and beyond (Ukraine and Syria come to mind) is worrisome and potentially very dangerous.
The epidemic use of hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine, along with the abuse of prescription drugs are resulting in new classes of addiction and its effects: joblessness, crime, death and destroyed lives. Overdosing is now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, at close to 40,000 deaths a year in 2013, with no indication that the numbers are falling. The availability of cheap heroin is helping to fuel a rapid escalation in its use, particularly by those addicted to more expensive prescription opioids, and deaths: In 2001, there were roughly 2,000 heroin-overdose deaths compared to 8,000 in 2013. A drug related death occurs every 13 minutes in the U.S., exceeding preventable deaths due to firearms and alcohol, according the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In 2013, the National Institute of Drug Abuse estimated the sheer cost of illicit drug addiction to be $11 billion in health care expenses, and close to $200 billion overall when you factor in lost productivity and crime, yet there has been little to no dialogue in the debates on this subject.
Gun-related deaths in the U.S., including suicide, number well into the tens of thousands a year; and African Americans die due to gun violence at twice the rate of whites. Inconsistencies in gun control legislation across states and a lack of cooperation between federal, state, and local authorities in regulating firearms are part of the problem, along with failed background checks and mental health management. Mass shootings alone have increased three-fold since 2011 according to a Harvard University study, occurring, on average, every two months now compared to every 200 days in the two decades prior. To date, no candidate has satisfactorily addressed this problem, either.
Illegal immigration's costs as of 2013 are estimated to amount to over $100 billion a year, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The majority of the cost is absorbed by state and local governments, with the reminder born by the federal government. Educating the children of undocumented immigrants poses by far the largest share of the burden, born by state and local governments. And many undocumented immigrants do not pay income taxes. States like California have expenditures due to undocumented immigrants that are not covered by the taxes the group pays. Amnesty policies, broadly applied, will further strain already-unsteady entitlement programs for taxpaying U.S. citizens.
Finally the rise and effects of radical Wahhabi Islam (now in the form of "ISIS") since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, together with the general collapse of order in the Middle East, poses the greatest potential existential threat to the United States now and for the foreseeable future. While containing Iran's nuclear program is a logical step toward containing the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide, it does nothing to stem the potential acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by ISIS and its offshoots.
First, ISIS territorial gains have to be reversed. Next, the governing apparatus it brings into conquered territories has to be destroyed and suitable replacements identified. Recruiting operations have to be dismantled. Peaceful alternatives for subjugated peoples have to be developed — arguably, the greatest challenge; a permanent, mass migration to Europe — now totaling over 700,000 according the European Union, and expected to climb to 3 million next year — is not the answer. Lastly, stemming the potential acquisition of WMDs by these radical actors, through third parties, is critical.
Presidencies are never, ever inconsequential. The next one, whether it lasts four years or eight, may well have to stave off more threats, both inside and outside of the U.S., than any presidency in the last 75 years, since the end of World War II. It's critical we hear from the candidates on these issues.
Ralph Masi is a professor with the University of Maryland System. His email is email@example.com.