It's been more than a year--though sometimes it seems significantly longer--since Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump first announced their bids for president. And after all of the insults and charges both sides have lobbed back and forth, on Monday evening they'll face off in the first of three scheduled presidential debates.
Given the high stakes and Trump's presence (remember what he said about Rosie O'Donnell in the first Republican debate, among a million other statements he's made?), the back-and-forth should be colorful, if not outright explosive. But with vague topics like "America's direction," "achieving prosperity," and "securing America" on the agenda, it's hard to divine exactly what the candidates will discuss. Inc. reached out to a variety of political-theater goers for their sense on which business issues will take center stage. Their consensus:
1. The Economy
In many real ways, the economy is actually doing pretty well. The unemployment rate hangs at 4.9 percent. And according to the latest census report, in the past year, the poverty rate declined and real median incomes rose for the first time since 2007. Also, the percentage of people living without health insurance coverage declined substantially.
But that's not the narrative Donald Trump will most likely paint on Monday. In various speeches, he has described an America that is in a state of decline. Specifically, he's noted spiking crime rates (though long-term trends show steep declines), vast trade deficits, and America's crumbling infrastructure. In his economic plan, which hinges on cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, and overhauling trade deals, he posits that he can help the economy grow at a 4 percent clip. (U.S. GDP grew at an annual rate of just 1.1 percent in the second quarter.) Naturally, Trump will hammer on these points at the debate.
Still, playing the stronger-economy card can be tricky for Clinton, says Jeff Shesol, a former deputy chief speechwriter to President Clinton. "As a former member of the Obama administration, she needs to take some ownership but without overselling it," says Shesol, who is also a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a strategic communication and writing firm in Washington, D.C. "Trump has a virtue in that he is fully prepared to paint a bleak picture of just about everything."
"The big open question mark" is Trump's metamorphosed tax plan, according to Dean Baker, co-director of the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Central to Trump's plan initially was a 15 percent tax rate on business income claimed on individual tax returns, known as "pass-through" income. It's considered pass-through, as earnings flow from the business to the owner's personal returns, which are now taxed at as much as 39.6 percent. He'd also reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, from where it stands now at up to 35 percent. "That would be a huge tax break," says Baker, who added that many small businesses operate as limited liability corporations, sole proprietorships, and S corporations, which are all pass-through entities. Then Trump quite publicly took part of his plan back, creating a web of confusion regarding what his plan actually contains. As it stands now, under his plan, the 15 percent rate cap only applies to businesses that are taxed as corporations, according to the Trump campaign.
Even if debate moderator and NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt doesn't bring this up, Clinton most assuredly will. She's been cagey about her own plans on corporate tax rates. While the Obama administration has supported reducing the top-end rate to 28 percent, she has avoided making similar calls. She has acknowledged that she'd look to "business tax reform" to pay for her proposed $275 billion infrastructure plan. That might be something Trump prods her on.
What else might Trump go after? Clinton's "evolving" stance on trade. As secretary of state in the Obama administration, she helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact involving 11 other, mostly Asian nations. Neither candidate now favors the TPP, however Clinton's former support of the deal could give Trump room to needle her.
Separately, he might again decry China for what he describes as unfair trade practices. Throughout the campaign, he has repeatedly blamed China for the loss of American economic vitality and manufacturing jobs. He has also publicly pushed for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. That, says economists, would prompt a trade war. Baker suggests it also wouldn't work, as China holds too much economic sway. "With small countries like Honduras," he says, "the U.S. can say 'this is what we want you to do.' With China, it's different."
Expect serious fireworks around the issue of immigration. Trump has not only called for the immediate deportation of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, he has proposed the outright ban of Muslims coming into the country. This presents a concern for businesses that rely on immigrant labor, says Raymond J. Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a small-business advocacy group based in Vienna, Virginia. A 2014 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that immigrants, while accounting for 13 percent of the overall population, make up 16 percent of the work force. So it's easy to grasp how hugely disruptive and traumatic uprooting all these lives would be.
It's also troubling, as many immigrants start businesses when they come to the U.S., he adds. "If you're a small-business group and a group that emphasizes the benefits of small businesses, as we are, you have to recognize the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs," says Keating. He noted that studies show the rate of entrepreneurship is higher among immigrants than those born in the U.S.
Trump has even talked about jettisoning the H-1B visa program, which is the federal program that allows for as many as 65,000 skilled immigrants to work in the U.S. each year--and which huge U.S. companies like Facebook and Google have lobbied to expand. Technology firms tend to hire from this pool, as a dearth of the skilled workers they seek persists in the U.S. Trump's stated immigration plan describes raising wages for H-1B visa holders, so there's greater parity between foreign and U.S. workers. And he has called for making employers attempt to fill open slots with U.S. workers before opening them to foreign workers.
By contrast, Clinton would push for comprehensive immigration reform, offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. She'd also uphold Obama's executive actions that have allowed such immigrants to temporarily remain in the country.