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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Bigger picture will become visible only after this plague-year election

The breadth of issues facing either Joe Biden

The breadth of issues facing either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will become clearer after the election. They're seen here at their Sept. 29 debate. Credit: Composite: AFP via Getty Images / Jim Watson and Saul Loeb

Presidential debates and forums rarely convey the enormity of challenges to come. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, one of the hottest clashes came on the topic of Quemoy and Matsu — islands contested to this day by China and Taiwan. The candidates' narrow spat on the islands' geopolitical value offered little hint of how the broader Cold War subsequently would play out.

The big picture today encompasses broad and basic governance problems that await postelection on the federal, state and local levels. Key issues include the future of the American economy and who will win, lose and survive.

Record federal deficits and spending were developing before the coronavirus pandemic. Budget deficits will reach almost $4 trillion by the end of President Donald Trump's first term this year, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reported last month.

The expanded costs have come primarily from the 2017 tax bill and its deep corporate-tax cuts, higher military and veteran expenses and a congressional agreement to spend above budget caps imposed earlier.

The need for help on all fronts due to the coronavirus led this year to a massive splurge in government spending. The true impact remains to be seen. One question is when deficit hawks will revive their spending and revenue concerns as a partisan bargaining point.

Republican Trump is no belt-tightener, but perhaps in a second term he'd see fit to change policies, citing depleted resources. Democrat Joe Biden was long considered a deficit hawk. But if Biden wins, there is no sign that closing the budget gap would be a priority, given the pandemic's damage to the economy.

Biden’s post-COVID promises involve new spending programs and a pledge to raise taxes on the nation's top earners and entities. He's put forward a $5.4 trillion spending plan that's still shy of what past rivals in the Democratic primaries such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were pushing.

The key to all of it, or to carrying out Trump's different initiatives, would be congressional support, and what compromises are possible. This of course depends mightily on which party wins majorities in the Senate and House. Frustrating presidents of the opposing party has become the pastime on Capitol Hill.

U.S. policies on trade, antitrust, tech businesses and energy are up in the air. So is the degree to which localities and states can rely on federal help. There are too many moving parts for anyone to predict what will happen differently should Biden or Trump win. Figuring out what we don't know will be part of the postelection drama. But the issues are guaranteed to be broader than flashpoints in a debate.