Scenarios for 2018 by Craig Fuller


Time for predictions. But, how often are they accurate?

The weekend shows were full of pundits offering predictions, but how useful are they for planning our future?

The discussions caused me to reflect on something I learned about long ago from a large global corporation that found the best way to prepare for events in the future was decidedly NOT to try and predict the future. Rather, they examined the major factors that would influence the future and developed scenarios.

Of course, books have been written about scenario planning, but for me, it has always meant charting alternative paths forward based on assumptions one makes around key factors shaping our society. Sounds simple and it comes with one important advantage – if you pay attention to what happens with the key factors you considered at the start, over time you will refine your thinking about the most likely scenario. The company – Shell – that really focused on this, wanted to make sure they were ready for all of the most likely scenarios that could affect their business, then they watched over time to refine what they determined to be the most likely situations they would confront during a planning period.

With so many variables in today’s world, the chance of a single prediction being correct in twelve months seems slim. So, maybe looking at key factors and developing a few scenarios might be useful.

This can be a participatory process where you get to decide the factors to look at and which ones are most important. You also get to decide the movement or direction of change most likely to be encountered.

Here are mine:

The economy – we are still in recovery. In fact, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, we’re entering the 102nd month of economic recovery. The average post-World War II recovery has lasted 58 months! So, will the economy continue to strengthen, or will it begin to decline?

The political climate – many of us around Washington will say we have never seen it this bad, but there are many around the country who suggest it is about time we shake things up. So, will the President work more collaboratively with Congress, or continue on the path he established during this first year in office?

Congress – while holding their approval scores well below the President’s own record low scores, the Congress did manage to pass a Tax Reform measure. Will this action to advance a legislative priority show them the way forward and should we expect a more productive legislative agenda in 2018?

Engagement – in off-year election cycles where there is not a presidential race, voter turnout is generally lower, and the election is usually viewed as a referendum on the incumbent President with the party out of power normally picking up some seats in the House and, at times, the Senate. Just over a year ago, about 1/3rd of registered voters voted for President Trump, and 1/3rd voted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There was 1/3rd of eligible voters who did not vote. In this upcoming election, the question is who will be more motivated to send a message…those who voted for President Trump or those who voted against him or not at all?

International conflict – sadly, we’ve grown all too accustomed to world conflict involving Americans. There seems to be an almost growing acceptance that this is the way it will be. That said, a dramatic rise in tensions where Americans are involved would most likely cause strong reactions at home and abroad. Perhaps the most important question is whether we come out of any serious event stronger or weaker than when we entered. In the context of our scenario planning, what is more likely – do we see our nation as stronger or weaker at the end of 2018?

What-Matters-Most Factor – I keep observing more and more people who seek and find relevant and meaningful activities in more and more creative ways. Time was when, if you had a passion for flying, it was hard to have time for boating and camping. But, now there are places where you can do “all of the above.” And, if travel is a challenge, you can go online and participate in thousands of forums for just about every and any interest someone could have. And, in communities, the churches, museums, schools and community centers offer programs that are of interest to more and more people. Maybe it’s the holidays or living in a smaller community, but family, friends and neighbors, just seem more important than the national media and our nation’s elected officials to many more people. So, when you think about the future, do you think that family and local concerns along with personal interests are going to matter more or less as we go forward?

Well, we could come up with more factors if we wished, but this should get us started on some scenarios.

Here’s my take….

The high expectations for current leadership scenario – this requires one to believe we can keep an already historically long period of economic growth going through 2018 and actually, we don’t really break the record until 2019. You would need, I think, to see a bit more collaboration between the President and Congress and even among the leadership in Congress to advance a national agenda. And, if the President and Republican party are to avoid a major political upset, more than a third of the voters are going to have to be motivated to turn out to vote for Trump-backed Republicans. Retaining control of Congress is pretty fundamental to having the ability to advance the agenda set by Trump through his first term. All of the above would be threatened by a major international upheaval; thus, I think this scenario requires the acceptance of tensions without the occurrence of a calamity. Lastly, if people are turning more inward, the leaders in Washington are going to have to look and sound relevant to more Americans.

The expectation of major change scenario – while seldom things are as good as some would wish or as bad as some see them, there are serious factors that could lead to a very difficult 2018. First, the economy could finally falter. A major stock market reset or crash would sharply change people’s expectation for continued prosperity. A more collaborative President seems less likely and the combative relationship with Congress seems more likely in an expectation of change scenario. It could also be argued that the leaders in Congress have less reason to get along and more reason to try and fight out their differences in the November elections, yielding little legislative activity for the year. A power shift in the House of Representatives and/or the United States Senate would send shock waves through the body politic. These changes actually sweep far more people out and then new ones in than the change of leadership at the White House. With or without a change, post-November 2018 will mark a point of major positioning for the next national election in 2020 making it very difficult to advance new initiatives. Voters seeking and getting a change in 2018 will arguably be highly motivated to continue the sweep right through 2020.

Is there a scenario in between? Well, there is, but as they say, “it’s complicated.” The economy and stock markets seem to have adjusted to the vagaries of Washington, thus insulating economic growth from some of the political machinations. And, consumers seem to remain optimistic which bodes well for economic growth, or at least not a serious downturn. While political upheaval feels very possible, it would be wrong to dismiss the angst many in the nation have for the ways of Washington. While even supporters may take exception with the way the President goes about governing, they remain perplexed that those holding national elected office just do not understand the voters’ concerns. Betting that some kind of legislative deadlock will turn out well for anyone seems foolish.

So, which path looks plausible. For me, as we enter 2018, it is one of slow economic expansion and greater antipathy towards policy makers in Washington. It’s a path where party politics in Washington will grow less relevant to more voters who will in turn hand a President an even smaller governing majority than he has now within the Republican party. Throughout this, I do believe people will look more inward and more locally for meaningful and fulfilling engagements. Whether the future then brings disengagement or a renaissance of sorts will be something to examine a year from now.

Watch the signals along the way to see if your favored scenario is becoming more likely or less likely!

Above all, have a Happy and Healthy New Year!!

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

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