Presidential Candidates’ Contrasting Approaches to National and International Issues

White House blue emblem

As the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign reaches its final stretch, interest in this election is exceptionally high. Polling data and early voting levels point toward a surge of voting unlike the country has seen since 1908. On the fundraising front, President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden have raised close to $3 billion dollars combined.

When it comes to issues, the approaches that both presidential candidates and their respective running mates have on an array of topics couldn’t be any different. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the economy to their campaigning styles, the contrasting priorities from the Democratic and Republican tickets reflect a divided nation.

Several Pomona College professors take a closer look at the positions of the Democratic and Republican candidates when it comes to some major issues and also comment on how presidential elections affect local election races.

U. S. and Foreign Policy

A veteran diplomat and associate professor of politics, Mietek Boduszyński is an expert on the intricacies of international diplomacy, specifically when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

Boduszyński: With a pandemic and domestic concerns such as the economy and racial justice on the forefront of voters’ minds, foreign policy has played a relatively minor role in the campaign. Not that Americans pay close attention to foreign policy even in “normal” presidential election years—but the 2020 contest may be unique in its preoccupation with domestic concerns. Hard to believe that just a few months ago domestic politics and foreign policy did intersect quite dramatically with the impeachment hearings, which focused on President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. That debacle, however, has barely been mentioned by the Biden campaign, showing how little political traction foreign policy issues are getting this year.

Yet, whether the candidates are talking about it or not, the U.S. role in the world matters. And that will not change anytime soon, in spite of all the talk about China’s rise and U.S. decline. Herein lies one of the big differences between Trump and former Vice President Biden—which is also a difference between President Trump and more “traditional” Republican foreign policy hands, many of whom are now supporting Vice President Biden. Biden wants to restore the U.S. to the leading role in the alliance system it built in the wake of World War II, while the President has repeatedly disparaged institutions like NATO and close allies like Germany. Biden also promises to bring democratic and human rights values back to the center of U.S. foreign policy. Trump, by contrast, has embraced autocrats and only selectively emphasized human rights. Finally, the two candidates have staked out vastly different positions on climate change, which is simultaneously a domestic and foreign policy issue.

But beyond this, part of the untold story of the 2020 presidential race in terms of foreign policy is how close President Trump and former Vice President Biden are on some key issues. First, both men say they want to take the U.S. out of so-called “endless wars” in the greater Middle East, bringing U.S. troops home while using special forces, drones, and other tools to fight terrorism. Americans across the political spectrum are supportive of this position. Second, both candidates have expressed skepticism about free trade and its effect on American workers, though Biden in the past has supported free trade agreements. Third, both candidates have taken rather tough lines on China, also reflecting the public mood. So, while Biden would say that he would approach these goals less erratically than Trump, the fact is that if foreign policy were a greater part of the conversation Biden would have to work hard to differentiate his positions from the president on some of these issues.

People often ask me: “If Biden wins, can he undo some of the damage done to U.S. foreign relations by the Trump administration?” I hate to be pessimistic, but it will be an uphill battle in some areas. U.S. allies have gone their own way in spite of Washington. Autocrats and autocracy have been unleashed, and will be hard to rein in. China, Russia and Turkey have expanded their influence around the globe. Biden will not want to give up the leverage of Trump’s China tariffs for nothing, but he will also find it exceedingly difficult to get more concessions out of Beijing. As the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin recently wrote, “even if the GOP and the American people can be convinced U.S. global leadership is worth restoring, there’s no assurance the world will go along.” 

International Relations with Asia

An expert in security issues in East Asia, Assistant Professor of Politics Tom Le examines militarism and regionalism in East Asia. Among his areas of expertise are Japanese security policy, Japan-South Korea-U.S. relations, war memory and reconciliation and militarism cultures. 

Le: There is a common perception among Asia experts that South Korea and Japan prefer Republicans over Democrats because they take a more hawkish stance on China and they are supportive of the U.S. alliances in the region. This was relatively true during the Obama administration where some in the security establishment in Asia felt that President Obama did not take a hardline approach against China, despite his “pivot to Asia.” One can expect a similar Asia policy from a Biden administration because many within his policy circle are public servants from the Obama administration. However, this is a new context. Biden would have to wind down President Trump’s trade war and South Korea and Japan have new leadership. I expect Biden to pursue a foreign policy similar to President Obama’s, which is engagement with China, reassuring South Korea and Japan of the durability of the U.S. alliance, and more engagement with the region. Some positive changes for Asia might be less pressure on increasing their defense budgets (a big demand from the current White House) and more qualified high-level officials placed in important posts. I expect Biden’s North Korea policy will not yield any results because North Korea has nuclear weapons—and they won’t be going back on this strategy. 

President Trump’s big policies in East Asia have been a “tough” stance on China, especially with trade, and pressuring Japan and South Korea to significantly increase their defense spending—also known as alliance burden sharing. Although South Korea and Japan the toughness on China, they do not like being entrapped in Trump’s trade war with no end in sight. They also despise Trump’s pressure regarding military spending. In general, many elites in Asia are growing tired of Trump’s rhetoric — they have somewhat just waved him off and are waiting for the election to come before they determine their next steps. Some might argue that Asia is already hedging and thinking of a future not led by the U.S. Trump’s North Korea policy has hit a dead-end. South Korea loves Trump’s engagement with North Korea and will likely pressure/coax Trump into another meeting. Japan has not seen any value in these meetings and will likely push back.

The Environment and Climate Change

Professor of Environmental Analysis and History Char Miller specializes on policies related to fighting wildland fires and budgeting for those efforts; U.S. environmental history, politics and policies; water politics in California and the Southwest; urban planning and federal public lands policy. 

Miller: There are two key actions that identify the Trump administration’s retrogressive approach to environmental issues. The first has been the construction of The Wall (always in caps), a real and symbolic attempt to criminalize the landscape, assert technological and militaristic power over the southern border, and cage those—not least children—that heavily armed agents capture in this walled-off terrain. This is not the only place that the administration is waging war on—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Alaska’s Bristol Bay are among other iconic landscapes it hopes to drill, mine, and pump. But the southern border is particularly revelatory of its brutal dismissal of human rights set within a prescribed territory.

The second issue is climate change. The president promised to pull out of the Paris Accord and did so. That too has had real and symbolic consequences—it was the first of many times the administration has refused to acknowledge—nay, eagerly denied—the global challenges that climate change is bringing on a daily basis; and, by rejecting the Paris Accord, it gleefully rejected the collaborative action that will be essential if we are to mount an effective effort to mitigate the crisis.

As for a future Biden/Harris administration: its platform offers a sharp rebuttal of the current White House’s approach to environmental issues. It makes clear that it understands the science of climate change and its manifold environmental and social consequences. Its pledge to unleash $2 trillion dollars to fund various climate mitigation measures (notably ramping up renewable energy in contrast to the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel fixation); its recognition of the need to craft more environmental and socially just sets of policies; and its commitment to undo the current president’s rollback of vital environmental regulations that have had a deleterious impact on the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe. 

This election could not be starker in terms of our choices and the futures that will result from how we vote.

Presidential Campaign Effects on Local Elections

Sara Sadhwani is an assistant professor of politics specializing in Asian American and Latino voting behavior, elections, interest groups and representation. 

Sadhwani: Every four years, the spotlight is on presidential campaigns: Party conventions, nationally televised debates and attack ads, gifs and memes running on every kind of information medium. Presidential elections garner the attention of many Americans who may not be tuned in to the daily ebbs and flows of politics. And by tuning in, Americans begin to scrutinize each of the candidates: their families, tax returns, past achievements and the votes they have cast. While President Trump was seen as the outsider in 2016, he now has four years under his belt in which voters can make a retrospective assessment of his performance.

Yet presidential races have important implications for more localized elections. Front and center this year will be more than 40 congressional districts that flipped from Republican-held to Democratic-held in 2018. In these moderate “purple” districts, voters will be looking at the ways in which their local congressional candidates are able to both align and separate themselves from the presidential nominees. In these districts, political newcomers often hold the advantage: Rather than an assessment of their past, voters must look prospectively at a candidate’s future potential. For example, California’s 25th congressional district (Simi Valley) is one of the hottest races in the country. The district flipped in 2018, only to have the new representative resign amidst a smearing sex scandal. Now, former Assemblymember Christy Smith, a Democrat, has to defend her prior vote record against Republican Mike Garcia, a Latino Navy pilot who has not previously held office. 

In Orange County a similar dynamic can be found where three districts flipped in 2018: all by political newcomers. Law professor Katie Porter (CA-45), lottery winner and businessman Gil Cisneros (CA-39) and attorney Harley Rouda (CA-48) were all new to the game of politics but successfully won districts that had been held by Republicans for decades. While these freshman members are still relatively new to the game, the voters’ scorecard of the last two years will reflect an overall assessment of the hyper-partisan political climate, and the outcome of these elections will hinge on voter turnout, the difficulty or ease of voting during a pandemic and the shifting demographics of the districts. Thus, voters’ support or opposition for these candidates will likely divide on partisan lines and thus be either a rallying of support for President Trump or a retrospective repudiation of his leadership.