Seven questions for the new year

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  • Julian Zelizer: Answers to questions about political extremism, ISIS, and the economy are among the factors that will shape 2016
  • He asks: How much can a president's executive power accomplish? Will Paul Ryan succeed?

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)A year from now, a newly elected president will be staffing his or her administration and getting ready to assume power. Americans will have had another year to see if our domestic and foreign policy problems have gotten worse -- or lessened. And people will have a sense of whether the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession is going to continue or run out of gas.

What will shape that moment of December 2016? Here are some of the big questions that need to be answered:

1) Will Republicans choose the path of extremism?

    Donald Trump has pushed the boundaries of what is respectable and legitimate to say in public discourse. He has blasted all sorts of groups: immigrants, women, Muslims and more. Some of his policy proposals, from his promise to erect a huge wall around the United States to his call for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country, have shocked huge parts of the electorate.
    Some have argued this is American fascism pure and simple. The problem for Trump's opponents is that every time he makes these kinds of statements his poll number rise. While a few Republicans have condemned his most draconian statements, other Republicans have echoed his views with softer versions of what he says.
    Few people thought Trump would still be standing at this point in the race. But he is. What happens as we enter into caucus and primary season will be important to the character of the party. As many Republican veterans understand, Trump's style of politics is creating the perception of a party that has moved very far to the right.
    The dynamics of demagoguery require someone to actually stand up against the person at the center. This is what happened in 1954 when attorney for the U.S. Army Joseph Welch finally stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during televised hearings and said, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
    Right now it remains unclear who is going to do this, though there has been more of a backlash toward his recent statements than he expected. Nor is he the only extremist in the pack. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, also far to the right and a leading practitioner of political obstructionism, has also been gaining steam.
    New Year's Eve numerals arrive in Times Square on December 15 in New York City.
    When Republican Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, he insisted his party had to move further to the right. "Extremism in the name of liberty is no vice."
    Some commentators wondered whether a white backlash to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could drive voters into the hands of the GOP. But Johnson responded that the opposite would happen. There would be a "frontlash" by which he meant a move of independent and moderate voters away from the GOP toward the Democrats because Goldwater was such an extreme nominee. He was right. In the election, Johnson and congressional Democrats won by a landslide, picking up many votes in traditionally Republican areas.
    As we begin the New Year, it remains unclear whether this will happen again or whether the sharp turn to the right will be permanent. The outcome will be important, not simply in terms of defining the Republican Party, but also in determining the standards for our political discourse.

    2) Can Hillary Clinton overcome the 'third term' blues?

    If Republicans don't nominate a candidate who is too far to the extremes, Clinton's campaign is aware that the alternative could be someone who has the potential for much stronger appeal, such as a Marco Rubio. If Republicans elected a person capable of appealing to a broad coalition and who would avoid alienating large portions of the electorate, she could have a tough campaign ahead.
    Historically it has been difficult for the party of the president to win after an eight-year stay in the White House. George H.W. Bush was one of the exceptions. Often by this point significant portions of the public are tired and there is electoral room for a new direction.
    Clinton has a number of factors in her favor: She has a skilled campaign team, a historic campaign to elect the first female president, polls show the public trusts her on many key issues like fighting terrorism, the opposition party is divided, and the U.S. economy is doing well.

    3) Will the economy continue to recover?

    The best thing Democrats might have going is that the economy has been moving in a good direction during the past few years. Unemployment is a little over 5% and the economy grew faster than experts expected. If Clinton can boast that Americans who voted for Obama when the economy was in dire straits are seeing considerable progress, she will be in a good position to defeat her opponent.
    But if the economy starts to languish, as some experts fear it might, voters could be even more restless and hesitant about electing another Democrat to the White House.

    4) How much can executive power accomplish?

    President Obama has been turning to executive power to try to do as much as possible that would not get through Congress. Frustrated with partisan gridlock on issues like climate change and immigration, over the past few year he has worked hard to use the muscle of the presidency to move forward on these goals. For instance, he has issued some tough regulations on climate change that have instantly resulted in a court challenge.
    Over the next year, the President will see how much he can accomplish without the legislative branch, both on domestic and foreign policy. Gun control is one area where we should expect to see Obama make an effort to take action without Congress. There is precedent for doing so.
    We have seen how presidents often do much more than expected, such as when President Bill Clinton issued a series of executive orders on the environment, advised by John Podesta, in his final years in office. One big difference is that in 2016 the Republicans will be more eager to legally challenge each move the President makes.
    Realistically, the President is out of any other options, so this is a fight he'll need to have if he hopes to enhance his legacy.

    5) What is America's policy toward ISIS?

    Many Americans have been wondering what exactly the administration will do to make sure ISIS does not strengthen its foothold in Syria and Iraq, while also raising questions about what the United States and its allies intend to do to fight against terrorism aimed at "soft targets" in the United States. The shootings in San Bernardino, California, highlighted just how vulnerable so many targets are.
    After Obama announced that the United States will stay the course against ISIS, there are many questions on both sides of the aisle about what the long-term strategy is. While the President can't give everything away, there will need to be more of a coherent response. The absence of a clear strategy has helped create room for Republicans to gain more attention for their own alternatives.
    Most important will be what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that part of the strategy will be front and center as the new year begins. The message will be important not just to calm the anxiety of American voters, but also send assurances to unsettled allies about how we plan to combat this threat. The administration will also have to give better indications of what kinds of actions will be taken to protect sites and civilians in the nation.
    One of the jobs of a president in times of national crisis is to calm the electorate with a sense of purpose and with a plan of response. The President needs to step up to this challenge.

    6) Can Paul Ryan avoid becoming John Boehner?

    Much of American politics depends on what happens on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives has been a source of gridlock throughout the past few years. The Freedom Caucus has enough votes to cause chaos and block Republicans. When John Boehner tried to tame them in the last few years over issues like the budget and raising the debt ceiling, he often ended up turning to Democrats to bail him out.
    Thus far House Speaker Paul Ryan has had more success. Most important, the Republicans and the administration reached a long-term budget deal that made the immediate crisis of raising the debt ceiling something they did not have to worry about. But the tensions are already flaring over the short-term budget. The tensions will only intensify. With election pressure, members in red districts will face more pressure to stick to the right.
    Whether Ryan can continue to keep order within the Republican conference is unclear. The situation is volatile. The first months of the new year will give us a better sense of how strong he can be.

    7) Will policing and criminal justice reforms happen?

    With so much attention focused on Donald Trump and ISIS, one of the biggest issues to emerge in the past few years has received much less attention in the last few months: policing and criminal justice reform.
    The Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the most dramatic grass-roots mobilizations of recent times. In response to the series of African-Americans who were killed at the hands of police, caught on camera, the activists mobilized a national campaign and attracted immense attention, calling for a platform of key changes to prevent such incidents from taking place again.
    Early in the presidential campaign these questions were front and center. Protesters were interrupting candidates, including Bernie Sanders, to force them to address these questions. There was bipartisan support with unusual coalitions calling for legislative reform on this issue.
    But thus far the actual progress has been limited. It will be essential in the coming months that the pressure does not abate. More incidents unfortunately are likely to happen and activists need to be ready to move forward with reforms when the window emerges.
    Lists like this of necessity capture only a handful of the issues and questions that will shape America in 2016. But the issues we face are big ones and each decision will have enormous consequences.