My least favorite question is: “What do you think will be the most important issue in the upcoming election?” Even worse is when it comes in front of a group that is focused on a single issue. One naturally hates to disappoint them.

In any event, I know for sure what issues won’t likely be at the forefront of voters’ minds this fall: America’s role in the world, our longtime alliances, or how we are regarded around the globe. It is really important, but just not to many voters. Ditto federal budget deficits and the national debt. It should be important, particularly to younger people who will have to pay the tab long after my fellow baby boomers and I have relocated to the great beyond.

But this election won’t be decided on policy issues, and certainly not on these policy issues.

In meeting ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries, the subject often hangs in the air that the respect and deference that the U.S. was long afforded simply isn’t there anymore. They may be onto something, according to a survey of 13,273 people in 13 other countries conducted this summer and released this week by the Pew Research Center. “Since Donald Trump took office as president, the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe,” the report opens. “In several countries, the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.”

For instance, “just 41 percent in the United Kingdom express a favorable opinion of the U.S., the lowest percentage registered in any Pew Research Center survey there. In France, only 31 percent see the U.S. positively, matching the grim ratings from March 2003, at the height of U.S.-France tensions over the Iraq War. Germans give the U.S. particularly low marks on the survey: 26 percent rate the U.S. favorably, similar to the 25 percent in the same March 2003 poll.”

Worse yet, America’s standing has declined “further over the past year,” a phenomenon primarily “linked to how the U.S. had handled the coronavirus pandemic. Across the 13 nations surveyed, a median of just 15 percent say the U.S. has done a good job of dealing with the outbreak.” By contrast, most respondents said the World Health Organization and the European Union have done a good job.

A similar report released in July by the Gallup Organization, based on both telephone and face-to-face interviews in 135 countries, concludes that “in the third year of Donald Trump's presidency ... the image of U.S. leadership started the new decade in a weaker position globally than at most points under the past two presidents.”

Gallup reported that “after tumbling to a record-low 30 percent during the first year of Trump's presidency, the image of U.S. leadership was not much better in the third year of his term,” edging up to just 33 percent.

Closer to home, few Americans seem to realize that the federal debt is on track to exceed the size of our entire economy by the end of fiscal 2020. The well-regarded Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reported in April that “the United States entered the current public health and economic crisis facing high levels of debt and trillion-dollar deficits. Due to the effects of the crisis and legislation enacted to combat it, debt and deficits will now grow much higher, to never-before-seen levels both in dollars and as a share of Gross Domestic Product.” Specifically, budget deficits could soar to $3.8 trillion (18.7 percent of GDP) this year and $2.1 trillion (9.7 percent of GDP) in 2021.

Even worse, the group noted: “These projections almost certainly underestimate deficits, since they assume no further legislation is enacted to address the crisis and that policymakers stick to current law when it comes to other tax and spending policies. The projections also assume the economy experiences a strong recovery in 2021 and fully returns to its pre-crisis trajectory by 2025.”

The normally dry Congressional Budget Office said in March, before the extent of the coronavirus pandemic was fully known, that over “the past decade, the federal government’s debt increased at a faster rate than at any time since the end of World War II, outstripping economic growth over that period.”

The reality is that this campaign is not about these issues, nor really any others. To a large extent, issue positions are baked in according to party preference. People who consider themselves Democrats tend to have one view of the role of government in society, diametrically opposed to Republicans.

This campaign will be a referendum on President Trump, as it usually is when an incumbent is seeking reelection. Dealing with America’s role in the world and how we manage crushing debt levels will have to wait until after Nov. 3.

This story was originally published on on September 18, 2020

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