Every winter, we ask Washington Post beat reporters and columnists to think about the big ideas, arguments, questions and problems that the new year will bring. Of course, if there’s one thing we learned over the last 12 months, it’s that what we don’t expect can matter even more than what we do: The first cases of the “unexplained pneumonia” that would become the coronavirus pandemic, after all, were announced quietly on Dec. 30, 2019. What will be on our minds when we remember 2021 a year from now? Here is Outlook’s fifth annual Year in Preview.
— Mike Madden
The White House
Biden beat Trump. Now what?
Democratic voters could agree on the main goal through a messy primary race and a quarantined general election: They would put aside differences to defeat President Trump.
But now that President-elect Joe Biden has delivered on that central promise, there’s less left to bind together the coalition that spanned from socialists who backed Bernie Sanders to suburban Republican women who once supported Mitt Romney. Keeping Democrats on the same page would help Biden enormously — if he can do it.
An early test will come Tuesday, when voters in Georgia go to the polls for two runoff elections. Biden carried the state in November, and if Democrats win both races — a difficult feat — his party will control the Senate by the narrowest of margins, giving him far more ability to drive the agenda in Congress than if Republicans hold the chamber.
Even then, Democrats wouldn’t have the votes to make structural changes to government, like ending the Senate filibuster, that would pave the way for more ambitious ideas. That means Biden probably won’t be able to achieve big, transformational goals.
So far, he’s setting out an early agenda focused on the twin health and economic crises, hoping that he can create bipartisan habits early by offering solutions to meet immediate needs for officials from both parties. Red and blue states want a vaccine, and Biden has promised to deliver it. Red and blue states need stimulus funds. He’s promised more of that, too.
But Biden also ran on confronting climate change, reforming the immigration system, strengthening labor unions, addressing income inequality and overhauling the criminal justice system — all ideas that will be met with significant Republican resistance. All will test the decades-long dealmaking relationship that Biden has touted with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Finally, though he was defeated at the ballot box and is leaving the White House, Trump still will have a place on the national stage. That leaves Biden with perhaps his most difficult task: overpowering Trumpism again.
One nation, two recoveries
The U.S. economy is expected to come roaring back in 2021 as coronavirus vaccines become more widely available and Americans begin to venture out again to restaurants, workplaces and entertainment venues. Yet just as the recession hurt low-wage workers more than people in white-collar industries, the recovery will benefit some people much more quickly than others.
Many sectors of the economy “should come on like a light switch once you have a vaccine,” says Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon. On top of the boom caused by businesses reopening, wealthier Americans will be looking to spend some of the substantial savings — more than $1 trillion — that they accumulated in 2020 as they worked from home and spent less on commuting, travel and nights out. That should also boost the economy.
Yet the recovery will continue to be “K-shaped,” as economists say, with already-well-off professionals heading steadily up as others struggle. Indeed, the split could get worse if additional government aid doesn’t materialize or if even more jobs and small businesses don’t return because consumer habits shift. Analysts at Goldman Sachs, for instance, think that economic growth will probably recover fully in 2021 but that employment won’t return to precrisis levels until 2024.
Nearly 10 million jobs lost during the spring still have not returned — especially in restaurants, travel and education — a higher number than at the worst point of the Great Recession. In the post-vaccine world, millions of Americans will have to find new jobs (or entirely new careers), a process that takes time. And that burden is likely to fall disproportionately on Black workers. So far, Black Americans have recovered only 53 percent of the jobs they lost, compared with 66 percent for Whites (and 69 percent for Hispanics).
Even as much of the economy bounces back, evictions could easily spike as protections fade away; millions of unemployed workers are severely behind on rent. And many services on which the poor and middle class depend could take a significant hit: Public education and public transportation, in particular, could face drastic cuts as cities and towns search for ways to close budget gaps caused by reduced tax revenue and the high costs of fighting the coronavirus. The pain will linger for low-wage workers even as many economic headlines turn rosy again.
How to make games fun without fans
Our obsession with sports seemed unstoppable until it was pitted against an intractable pandemic. Then everything halted in 2020 for several months, and when the games returned, they were sterile, inspiring uneasy feelings and poor television ratings. Like everything else infected by the novel coronavirus, athletics were literally sickening.
The hope of a new year and an effective vaccine provides a spiritual jolt but not an immediate elixir. Professional and major college sports will remain in survival mode throughout 2021, desperate to reinvent how they engage with fans and eager to see the day when tens of thousands can gather in their venues once again.
Despite some incredible athletic performances amid the duress, it has been difficult to present sports on television without large numbers of fans. The TV tricks — fresh camera angles, manufactured crowd noise, dabbling with greater interactivity — couldn’t prevent the product from being a glorified scrimmage. For die-hard fans, the outcomes carried emotional value, but it was hard to get past the practical reality: These weren’t events as much as they were staged replicas to satisfy lucrative TV contracts.
While awaiting normalcy, sports executives must be more creative in doing something that will seem novel to them: finding a dependable audience. And they must do so with limited resources. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said 40 percent of the league’s revenue comes from game nights at arenas. Other sports are similar — and some are even more dependent on live events. Vaccines notwithstanding, teams don’t expect a fast return to regular times. All are concerned about how long they can hold on while experiencing extreme revenue shortfalls.
Their business models are built on the endurance of the sports obsession, which normally provides even when teams don’t have a good on-field product. Adjusting to life without a financial autopilot will only grow more challenging.
Most will survive. Some will crumble. The way sports operate won’t fundamentally change; executives will view this as a once-a-century predicament. But as technology alters viewing habits and younger generations consider how much money they’re willing to commit to fandom, the pandemic has exposed an urgent need to diversify. Experimentation should begin in earnest.
A 2020 repeat — but this time, on purpose
A year ago, United Nations scientists issued a dire warning to humanity: To keep global warming within tolerable limits, we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an unheard-of 7.6 percent annually. Twelve months later, though, the world just about hit that target — unintentionally, and at the terrible cost of more than 1.5 million lives. The coronavirus shutdowns and resulting economic devastation led to the biggest decline in planet-warming emissions in human history: about 7 percent.
In 2021, the world will need to reduce emissions on the same scale while simultaneously controlling the coronavirus and rebuilding the economy.
There are reasons to be optimistic, said Surabi Menon, vice president of global intelligence at ClimateWorks Foundation and a member of the steering committee for the U.N.’s “emissions gap” reports. The European Union, South Korea and Japan have committed to reducing their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. China says it will do so by 2060. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s election signals the United States’ return to international climate diplomacy. With history’s biggest emitter back in the Paris agreement, climate experts hope countries will be motivated to pledge deeper emissions reductions at the U.N. climate conference in November.
Governments are expected to spend nearly $13 trillion to help their countries recover from the pandemic, offering an unprecedented chance to fund research on green technology and transition away from fossil fuels. If stimulus packages are invested the right way, the International Energy Agency has found, they could trim expected 2030 emissions by as much as 25 percent. Not since the end of World War II has society seen such an opportunity to reinvent itself.
But if humanity does not reverse course on climate change in the coming year, we will find ourselves locked into escalating warming for decades to come. “This is the one chance we have,” German climatologist Niklas Höhne told The Post. “Governments will not spend this much money again in 10 years.”
Ditch the kitchen ‘concept,’ chefs
Concept has always been king for restaurants. The concept, or business plan, informs everything: what food is served and how, the decor and tableware, the marketing and target customers, the selection of employees, the location, even the name of the place. The success of a restaurant, the thinking went, flowed directly from the originality of its concept and its owners’ ability to stick to it. Straying from the plan was an indication of weakness, and a sure warning sign to customers and investors that the business was doomed.
But if the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that restaurant business plans are meant to be scrapped, or at least adapted. White-tablecloth restaurateurs have simplified menus to pivot into carryout and third-party delivery. Chefs have carved out spaces in the back of the house for “ghost kitchens” selling comfort foods far removed from their original concepts, available just for takeaway or delivery. Operators have opened small retail markets, subleased spaces for pop-ups or developed branded products to sell in retail stores. Flexibility and adaptability have become keys to survival, and no one bats an eye when, say, a refined seafood restaurant now sells chicken parm, meatloaf, and mac and cheese.
With labor and overhead costs rising for years, the restaurant industry was obviously ripe for reinvention. In the fall, chef, restaurateur and media darling David Chang told Fortune magazine that, even before the pandemic, he had set a long-term goal to generate 50 percent of his revenue from consumer goods, not from “the four walls of a restaurant.” The Momofuku Group had a five-year plan, and “now we’ve tried to accelerate that into six months,” Chang said.
Chefs and restaurateurs will continue to blow up their concepts in 2021. No one knows for sure when diners will feel comfortable sitting inside restaurants again, which means operators at all levels will continue to devote resources to takeout, ghost kitchens and other solutions. But the pandemic has also forced countless owners to go into debt, including back rent, and restaurateurs who survive this mess will need to diversify their revenue streams to help settle those accounts.
The good news, if you want to call it that, is that older restaurants (the ones whose owners complain about never getting media coverage) can reinvent and reinvigorate themselves, and no one will call them desperate. Diversification is now just baked into the business plan.
Vaccines will help, but normal is still elusive
When will life return to normal?
Chances are, no single question will be asked more often as the new year begins and 2020, one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, comes to a merciful end.
With the delivery of the first doses of vaccine to hospitals in mid-December, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel grew a bit brighter. The initial shipment of 2.9 million doses was enough only to start inoculating health-care workers and nursing-home residents. But it portended the beginning of the end — the hope that by the middle of 2021, perhaps, anyone who wanted to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could be.
As always, there are questions: Are the vaccines safe? Will they have side effects? Will the difficult task of transporting and delivering them be accomplished? And most important, will enough Americans be willing to take them?
Scientists say 70 to 80 percent of us must, in order for all to be protected against the virus. Polls showed acceptance of the idea edging into that range as 2020 ended. And that was before a campaign to persuade the reluctant began in earnest. So when will life return to normal?
Masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing still will be features of the first half of the year. Gathering with loved ones, working together without fear and sending children to school campuses full-time may have to wait until the fall.
But if all goes well — a plausible if difficult-to-reach outcome — the latter part of 2021 could look more like 2019, before the pandemic altered life as we knew it.
Space Force is here to stay
Between his over-the-top salesmanship — one tweet read, simply, “SPACE FORCE. VOTE!” — and the Star Trek-esque branding, the U.S. Space Force will forever be associated with President Trump. But while some are urging President-elect Joe Biden to eliminate his predecessor’s prized program, that’s not likely to happen.
In 2020, the Space Force became the first new military branch since the Air Force was established in 1947, in part because of bipartisan support in Congress, which concluded that space — like the land, sea and air — is a warfighting domain that needs to be defended. “It’s here to stay,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), who lost her reelection bid but served on the House Armed Services Committee and as chair of a subcommittee on space. “It was not about this administration — this was a long-term, thoughtful and bipartisan effort looking at the current and future needs of our national security.”
With American military satellites guiding precision munitions and everyday traffic — yes, that blue GPS dot on your phone comes courtesy of the Pentagon — there is a lot at stake in space. And it isn’t just superpowers competing for the high “ground.”
Space has also become a new front in corporate battles funded by billionaire entrepreneurs. There’s a race to flood Earth’s orbit with satellites that would beam the Internet to billions of people without access to broadband. And there’s the human race: Having flown NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time in 2020, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is ahead of rival Boeing, which stumbled in the development of its new capsule. Both companies plan to fly astronauts in 2021, and SpaceX is even planning a launch that could ferry private space tourists.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are also looking toward space tourism, starting with flights for wealthy travelers that would not reach orbit, grazing the edge of space before returning to Earth. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Both companies expect to start flights in 2021.
Those tourists won’t run into any uniformed military up there, however. Eventually, the Space Force may train a corps of guardians as astronauts — after all, its motto is Semper Supra, “Always Above.” But that day is a long way off. For now, the newest military branch is just trying to determine where on Earth its headquarters will be located.
It’s Amy Coney Barrett’s court now
For a while now, the Supreme Court’s essential question has been, “What does Chief Justice John Roberts want?” Starting in 2021, the central question might become, “What does Justice Amy Coney Barrett think?”
Court commentators struggled at the end of the term last July to find words to describe Roberts’s influence. He was a part of every majority as the court decided cases involving some of the nation’s most controversial issues: abortion, gun control, religious liberty, legal protections for LGBT workers and President Trump’s sweeping claims of executive autonomy.
But there already are signs that Barrett’s replacement of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg could diminish Roberts’s pivotal role. Barrett provided the fifth and decisive vote to do away with the court’s general deference to local officials regarding pandemic restrictions — the position Roberts had championed. She joined fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to strike a blow for religious organizations that had chafed at what they said were unconstitutional boundaries on their right to worship.
The right is looking at Barrett’s judicial record and daring to dream big again. As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Barrett abided by the court’s precedents on restricting protesters from the doors of abortion clinics and health centers. But she and fellow judges criticized the jurisprudence as incoherent. Conservative lawyers are hoping that a case from Pittsburgh will allow Barrett and like-minded colleagues to ease or eliminate the limitations.
One of her most important opinions as a circuit court judge was an against-the-grain dissent that said felons should not necessarily be forbidden from gun ownership. Such a deprivation of Second Amendment rights should depend on whether a person is dangerous, she wrote, not the classification of his crime. The Firearms Policy Coalition has filed a petition on behalf of a Pennsylvania man similarly barred from gun ownership, which could provide the chance for the court’s new conservative majority to consider the issue anew.
Roberts is a conservative, of course, but one who has been wary of advancing the court’s movement on gun control and abortion too far and too fast. On these and other issues, Barrett might not be so reluctant.
Black Lives Matter comes to Broadway
Theater blooms in the fertile ground of political turmoil. It’s one of the form’s most resilient characteristics. Revolt sometimes springs directly from the stage; a dissident Czech playwright, the late Vaclav Havel, after all, rose out of revolution to lead a country away from Soviet domination.
So if the pandemic-driven shutdown of 2020 imposed an existential crisis on theater in this country, a simultaneous upheaval — the widespread protests over white supremacy, spurred by a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement — has created the conditions for a revolution on the stage in 2021.
Look, then, for a renaissance, on Broadway and other stages, in plays by Black artists and other people of color. The groundwork is being laid — if the coronavirus vaccines are distributed fast enough — for a return to live performance with far more input from generations of Black playwrights, directors and administrators. As a result, the theater world will find itself connected in a profound way to the world evolving just outside the playhouse doors.
The seeds of a new order are already apparent: In October, the Tony Awards belatedly announced the nominees for Broadway’s truncated 2019-20 season, which ended in early March. The searing seriocomedy “Slave Play,” by a young Black dramatist making his Broadway debut, Jeremy O. Harris, garnered an astonishing 12 nominations — the most ever for a nonmusical.
Even before vaccines were authorized, “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” by Keenan Scott II, the stories set in Brooklyn of seven Black men, was scheduled for a reopened Broadway. And the long, long-awaited Broadway debut of Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind” — a brilliant 1955 backstage comedy-drama about racism in the rehearsal room — will come via New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company.
Black playmaking, of course, has been a vibrant aspect of the American theater for decades; Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks and Jackie Sibblies Drury are among the Black writers who have won Pulitzer Prizes for drama over the past two decades. In the wings now, an accelerated recognition of the creative power of theater artists of color is waiting for us all.
Celebrity in the palm of your hand
The love affair between celebrities and Instagram Live is poised to grow in 2021. Not only have direct broadcasts over the Internet become an easy pandemic-era way for stars to endear themselves to fans with near-guaranteed publicity, but the celebrities have complete control over what they say. They don’t need to write a witty caption or agonize over the perfect filter; viewers crave — and expect — authenticity in a spontaneous real-time chat.
In 2020, Selena Gomez revealed her bipolar diagnosis on Miley Cyrus’s Instagram Live series and said she felt comfortable sharing the news there because she “liked the rawness of the show.” Stars chatted with their co-stars, interviewed politicians, held cocktail hours, patched up old feuds, spilled details on future projects and even streamed their daughter’s stuffed-animal wedding (that was Chrissy Teigen and John Legend).
One unfortunate side effect is that the trend of celebrities preferring to interview each other rather than face questions from journalists will endure. There’s no doubt that this new model will remain popular — especially because fans feel even more connected to their favorite stars in such casual settings. Of course, some stars will feel so at home, they will basically forget that they’re speaking to millions, leading to controversies. Just look at actress Vanessa Hudgens, who went live to shrug off the pandemic in March, noting that “people are going to die, which is terrible — but inevitable?” (She later apologized.)
Musicians have been some of the most frequent users of the streaming platform, keeping their performance muscles strong while tours have been shut down. That development may fade as life slowly returns to “normal,” but Instagram did recently announce that it’s expanding live streams to a maximum of four hours instead of just one — so as we start the new year, much of our entertainment will still be found in the Instagram app, just as it was for much of 2020.
The great academic catch-up
Children are likely to return en masse to school buildings in 2021, wrapping up our involuntary national experiment with home schooling. But the effects of the pandemic on American education will extend long beyond the end of Zoom school. And even before the fights over reopening campuses have ended, attention is turning to the next challenge: How to help children make up the ground they’ve lost. One answer, experts say, could be an unprecedented large-scale tutoring program.
Significant academic damage to children has already been recorded, particularly in math, as students have struggled to connect and teachers have struggled to teach remotely. Students of color and those in low-income families are seeing the steepest losses — exacerbating existing inequities. In a December report, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicted that White students could lose the equivalent of eight months of math if schools stayed closed through June, while students of color could lose as much as 12 months. McKinsey estimates that high-intensity tutoring to cover half of U.S. students would cost $66 billion (at $2,500 per student), and advocates hope the federal government and private foundations will pay the bill.
It’s a big tab, and it’s far from a sure thing that there will be any money. Still, research — including a recent meta-analysis of 96 tutoring programs by J-PAL North America, an MIT lab focused on poverty issues — suggests that well-executed tutoring programs are effective at helping students catch up quickly, even more than other large-scale interventions (including reducing class sizes, providing additional training for teachers or purchasing new curriculums).
To be effective, experts say, tutoring needs to be consistent — at least two or three hours a week, for at least several months. The best programs are embedded within schools so that learning aligns with the local curriculum (and so students show up). Tutors don’t necessarily have to be teachers, however: Lower-paid paraprofessionals have nearly as much success, the research shows.
Schools are already strapped for cash, tax collections are down, and it’s been hard to pry funding out of Washington. If districts are left on their own, there’s little doubt that wealthy ones will be far better positioned to help kids catch up than their higher-need, higher-poverty counterparts. Schools appear eager to ramp up tutoring in 2021, but who will pay for the project — if anyone — is far less clear.
Reversing Trump’s havoc on the world stage
President-elect Joe Biden promises a grand restoration of American leadership on the world stage. As soon as he enters the White House, he will try to reverse some of the havoc wreaked by President Trump abroad. He’ll rescind the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, return to the Paris climate accords and start salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran.
But Biden and the myriad Obama-era veterans in his administration also have grander ambitions, beyond setting the clock back to 2016: He says he aims to counter the global tide of “rising authoritarianism.” His aides have floated new geopolitical groupings that would prioritize human rights and liberal values, an alliance of democracies that could serve as a counterweight to autocrats and elected illiberal strongmen. Biden also says he’ll put the world’s kleptocrats on notice and bring greater transparency to the global financial system. Targeting corruption and illicit tax havens, the thinking goes, would chip away at the inequities that fuel nationalist populism.
On all those fronts, the new administration will have its work cut out. On climate, any collaboration with China — the world’s biggest carbon emitter but also an emerging green-tech giant — will be met with Republican fury at home. On Iran, the landscape has markedly changed after four years of Trumpist “maximum pressure”; trust between all parties is low. On challenging authoritarianism and upholding liberal values, the mixed record of Biden’s own time in office as vice president — which saw the sputtering of democratic revolutions in the Arab world and unchecked military adventurism by Russia — suggests that a liberal renaissance may not be around the corner.
Ultimately, no foreign policy priority in 2021 will matter as much as Biden’s ability to lift the country out of the pandemic. Other nations are hoping that Washington can help lead efforts to distribute vaccines in the developing world, but the United States still has a long struggle ahead to heal itself. No matter Biden’s avowed internationalism, the era of “America First” may not be over just yet.
The movies come home
In theory, 2021 should be the year of massive movies. After all, a slew of films that didn’t come out during a pandemic-stricken 2020 were pushed to 2021 — a list that includes the James Bond installment “No Time to Die,” Marvel’s “Black Widow,” the “Quiet Place” sequel, a new “Fast & Furious” film and even Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
What reality will look like is another question. We know that at least a few movies will be coming — Warner Bros. says it will make available all 17 of its scheduled films, including “Dune” and “In the Heights,” on HBO Max, no matter how many theaters it can put them in. But that still leaves four other major studios, including every big movie from Disney, in limbo.
There are two likely scenarios. In one, the virus quiets down, thanks to the vaccine, a few months into the year. People quickly feel comfortable returning to theaters (and enough of those theaters hang on until then), and the rest of 2021 is a bonanza, a cinematic splashdown the likes of which the world has never seen.
In the second scenario, the vaccine doesn’t bring us to herd immunity as quickly, keeping cities — and theaters — closed. You might assume that studios would then move many films to streaming, as Warner Bros. has already done.
Not necessarily. A number of these titles cost $200 million or more to make. Studios can earn that back fast in theaters if a movie does well. On streaming only? Not so much. While studios often take upward of 60 percent of theatrical ticket sales in the United States, streaming dollars can be measured only in subscribers acquired or retained — and, given that one title rarely compels a subscription, sometimes not even that. Most studios would rather relax and recoup than rush and lose.
That’s especially true for Disney, which doesn’t need these films to supercharge its already-robust Disney Plus service. Executives know that billions await if they just hold out. In fact, it’s not even clear that all of Warner Bros.’ films will really be on HBO Max. A few of them, such as “Dune,” have deals or financial backers that may not give the studio the final say.
So 2021 probably won’t be the year of big movies on your small screen. It will either be the year of cinema or the year of waiting — two futures battling it out as fiercely, and uncertainly, as the Sharks and the Jets.