If there’s one thing this past year taught us, it’s that predicting the future is a dangerous business in a world where even the present sometimes seems hard to understand. But while it may be impossible to know exactly how the year will go, the broad outlines of the debates, ideas and trouble spots that we’ll all be looking back on this time next December are already emerging.
So once again, we’ve asked Washington Post beat reporters and columnists to forecast the big stories, themes and questions they think will dominate 2019. Here’s our third annual Year in Preview.
The race to claim the North Pole will heat up
Eleven years after Russian explorers planted their country’s flag on the Arctic Ocean floor, trying to claim the seabed for Russia alone, sea ice has melted to a record low, and everyone wants a piece of the North Pole — since it’s no longer a frozen death trap. Cruise lines are trying out polar voyages, and this year, for the first time, a container ship sailed through the fabled Northeast Passage, a journey that until recently would have been impossible.
That’s only the (ahem) tip of the iceberg. By some estimates, there’s as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas under all that water, and the race to claim it is heating up.
Countries can claim an “exclusive economic zone” in the waters they border, up to 200 nautical miles offshore. Only Norway and Iceland have made Arctic claims that have been approved by the United Nations. Several countries, including Russia, Denmark and Canada, have overlapping claims that the United Nations hasn’t yet ruled on.
Who wins the territory will have a significant impact on climate and geopolitics for decades. Access to yet-untapped fossil fuels would lower gas prices and drive up carbon emissions, and newly claimed Arctic territory could bring nations closer together physically, which worries the U.S. military. “Of particular note are Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North,” the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Command chief, Adm. Harry Harris, said in March. “Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined, and is building more with distinctly military capabilities.”
— Angela Fritz
(Fritz is an environmental scientist and The Washington Post’s deputy weather editor.)
More athletes will refuse to be exploited
The WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces did something last summer that no women’s team had ever done: Itrefused to play a game, citing health concerns. The NFL’s best running back, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, took it one step further: He refused to play the entire 2018 season. And a high school basketball player, all-American Darius Bazley, refused to join the NCAA’s cartel. He opted for a $1 million paycheck with New Balance to train a year for the NBA draft, rather than get paid nothing while toiling for a college coach making his own millions.
While athletes like Colin Kaepernick protesting for social justice have drawn attention over the past few years, a different trend may prove even more disruptive — and important — in 2019. More and more athletes in the pros, college and even high school are taking their ball and going home, rather than accepting exploitation in the multibillion-dollar sports industrial complex.
They are doing so for self-preservation: The college bowl season kicked off with several stars refusing to suit up and risk injury that could cancel NFL contracts. They are doing so for more equitable pay: The WNBA players’ union followed the Aces’ lead in November and voted out of its contract with the NBA, in part to protest for a share of revenue closer to the 50 percent NBA players get, rather than the 20 percent the WNBA pays. They are doing so because, at the least, their livelihoods are on the line, and, like so many other workers, they can’t count on altruism from owners and management. Next year, those who control sports may push back hard against those who play them.
— Kevin B. Blackistone
(Blackistone writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.)
Terrorist attacks will be harder to prevent
Terrorism was the rare bright spot in 2018: It was down around the world. In fact, data collected by the University of Maryland shows that the number of terrorist attacks has dropped every year since 2015.
That may not hold in 2019.
Experts attribute the decline, particularly in Europe, to the Islamic State losing its footing. The group “suffered formidable losses in Syria and neighboring Iraq,” said Brian Levin, head of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “They lost much of their virtual space as well.” The network has struggled to recruit and train followers, and lacks the capacity to pull off large-scale attacks.
Other extremist groups haven’t faded away, though — far from it. Instead of operating in large groups, extremists often gather online, connecting and affiliating with micro-causes and meeting like-minded zealots, researchers say. They cheer each other on as they follow a path toward radicalization.
These extremists are often motivated more by local or personal issues, like Brexit or the incel movement, than by religious wars or international jihad. In 2019, those issues could lead to a global rise in the kind of attacks we’ve seen recently in the United States, like the killing in Octoberof two black shoppers at a Kroger in Kentucky: violence carried out by individual domestic actors. This decentralized style of terrorism is particularly challenging for authorities to predict and stop.
“I don’t expect as many attacks in the name of ISIS,” said George Washington University professor Neil Johnson, who studies the behavior of extremists on social media. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if there is an increase in the number of lone-wolf attacks that come seemingly out of the blue.”
— Amanda Erickson
(Erickson writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.)
Drive-throughs will pick up the pace, smartly
The fast-food drive-through experience has changed little since the first one opened in 1947: Pull your car up to a two-way speaker; tell the friendly worker what you want to eat; pull forward to a window to pay and receive your burger and fries.
In 2019, expect to see more signs of an overdue upgrade now underway.
Certain Chipotle restaurants, for example, have drive-through lanes — but only for pickup. Customers order ahead via the company’s mobile app or website and are given a pickup time. Dunkin’ takes it to the next level: The chain uses geotracking technology to know when customers who have placed mobile orders are about to arrive; their coffees are ready but not waiting around getting cold. At some Chick-fil-A locations, the drive-through is the sole option: These “dark restaurants” serve only takeout and catering orders in stores that are smaller — and thus cheaper.
Restaurants including McDonald’s have brought back carhops, once a fixture of fast-food joints romanticized in films like “American Graffiti.” No roller skates now: These carhops run delivery orders to customers who wait in parking spaces. All of these changes are intended to shear seconds off customers’ wait times while allowing the restaurants to serve a higher volume.
Changes to the drive-through will continue next year, but they won’t be swift. The new systems are expensive. Eventually, AI will enter the mix: Video monitoring can gauge customer sentiment; virtual agents can take orders.
In the meantime, want fries with that? Tell your app.
— Maura Judkis
(Judkis covers culture, food and the arts for The Washington Post. She is a 2018 James Beard Award winner.)
U.S.-China relations will worsen
President Donald Trump regularly touts his “great relationship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But on matters of trade and security, the world’s two largest economies are moving ever further apart. That split is likely to widen in 2019, setting up a conflict that China watchers are already calling “the new cold war.”
Trade is the first front. Trump has made changing the terms of the U.S. relationship with China a priority, slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese products. The administration has accused China of ripping off the United States by propping up Chinese businesses, forcing technology transfers, and tacitly supporting intellectual property theft and cybercrime. The Dec. 1 arrest of a Chinese tech executive wanted for allegedly violating sanctions on Iran will only add to China’s long-standing view that the United States aims to thwart its rise .
But it’s not just about trade. In a historic Oct. 4 speech, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a sweeping rebuke of the world’s second-largest economy, saying that Beijing was “using political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” Addressing Chinese moves in the South China Sea, Pence said the United States “will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.”
China’s response says much about the mood heading into 2019. If Washington refuses to stand down, Beijing won’t either, argued Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry: “No one can stop the Chinese people from steadfastly marching ahead.”
— Emily Rauhala
(Rauhala writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.)
Celebrity and politics will break up
Will this be the year that finally proves Hollywood and Washington just don’t mix?
Famous people and their political opinions will continue to rack up retweets, but in 2019, the celebrity endorsement will no longer be the glitzy rubber stamp it once was, and the noise around celeb candidates will be significantly quieter.
During the 2018 midterms, A-listers who normally steered clear of politics for fear of alienating their fan bases decided to go full steam ahead on social media — to no avail. Taylor Swift backed two Democratic candidates running in her home state of Tennessee, ending years of speculation about the 28-year-old singer’s political proclivities. But despite an immediate uptick in online voter registration following her October surprise Instagram post, Taylor’s guys lost. Native Houstonian Beyoncé couldn’t whip her Instagram followers into a Senate win for newly anointed La La Land favorite Beto O’Rourke. The candidate himself had to curb the haters who claimed that the singer’s Election Day post came too late: “I was grateful that she supported us — whenever it came, it was great.”
Having a bevy of celebrities — your Katy Perrys, Mark Ruffalos, Susan Sarandons, Sarah Silvermans — as background dancers at your campaign concert won’t be a good look for aspiring presidential candidates. There’s already a celebrity in the Oval, remember. And celebrity itself is proving to be something of a liability: Ask Cynthia Nixon. Maybe that’s why George Clooney, who was once a frequent subject of “Will he run?” speculation, has said celebrities shouldn’t run for president. Hollywood, which has shunned Washington post-Obama, will most likely stay out of politics until it’s safe again. And Washington will probably welcome the reprieve.
— Helena Andrews-Dyer
(Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Reliable Source.)
The race to dethrone Trump in ‘20 starts now
In politics, 2019 is going to be all about 2020.
The Democratic primary race will see a sprawling field with candidates competing for attention through viral moments and fundraising dominance. Might Joe Biden commit to serving only one term? Will there be a bipartisan — or all-female — ticket? Will President Trump, who seems to have an iron grip on a Republican Party he’s remade in his image, nonetheless face his own pesky primary challenger?
The first quarter will determine who can raise money (not only the biggest amount but from the most people). By June, debates will begin. And come August, contenders will be parading around the Iowa State Fair, pretending they like eating pork on a stick.
The bulk of the disputes won’t be ideological — there’s no Iraq War vote, as in 2008 — but stylistic and generational: Who can win a fight with Trump? Who can suck away the news oxygen he lives on? Can they tune out his rolling commentary on the whole thing?
The field could include a new face (Beto O’Rourke) or even a former nominee (John Kerry privately talks to friends about again reporting for duty) — or two (Hillary Clinton’s supporters still stoke speculation that she could run).
Billionaires (Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Howard Schultz) will try to make inroads in an increasingly populist party. Mayors (Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles) will introduce themselves to the nation. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will try to claim the left; Kamala Harris and Cory Booker will look to capitalize on energy among the party’s black voters.
And then everything could change when Oprah reconsiders her repeated denials and gets into the race.
— Matt Viser
(Viser is a national political reporter for The Washington Post.)
Economic growth will slow — maybe by a lot
President Trump and his inner circle have long claimed they can take the U.S. economy to warp speed. Trump has repeatedly said he can achieve “4, 5 and maybe even 6 percent” growth for many years, a feat that hasn’t happened in decades.
We won’t hit those numbers in 2019. Indeed, nearly every economist who doesn’t work in the White House believes that the United States will see a slowdown from this year’s roughly 3 percent growth figure.
Why? Head winds abound: Trump’s trade war with China is rough and could easily escalate, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates, the stock market is volatile, and growth in other developed countries is slowing. Setting the immediate tariff fights aside, no one really knows what Trump’s larger trade plan is. Unpredictability is the enemy of growth, and unpredictability defines this White House.
Most economists and business leaders believe that the fairly robust growth in 2018 was largely spurred by the 2017 tax cuts and by additional government spending, notably on the military and various education and health programs. Next year, the buzz from that economic Red Bull will start wearing off.
How low will growth go in 2019? Top forecasters suggest a range of possibilities, from a steep decline (down to 1.7 percent) to a gentle slide (to 2.6 percent). On the bright side, almost no one is talking about a full-blown recession when the economy shrinks, as opposed to simply growing more slowly.
Look for the economy to keep growing through July, when the current expansion will officially become the longest in U.S. history (10-plus years). But by the end of 2019, there will probably be much less to celebrate — and some awkward economic facts for the president to explain.
— Heather Long
(Long is an economics correspondent for The Washington Post.)
Trump will hit the media even harder
In 2018, President Trump revoked a CNN reporter’s White House credentials (and was quickly ordered by a judge to return them). He disparaged the news media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” He insulted three black female reporters as “stupid” and a “loser.” And as the contentious year came to a close, he showed the low esteem in which he holds journalists by canceling a long-standing tradition: the White House press party.
It may sound as though this fraught situation couldn’t get any worse. But as Trump fights for his political life in 2019, his favorite punching bag — the reality-based press — will get more of a pounding.
The president clearly intends to play to his base as aggressively as possible. Trump supporters have been taught (partly by the president’s loyalists at Fox News, particularly Sean Hannity) to despise and mistrust the mainstream media. As legal, investigative and political pressure bears down, Trump will feed more and bigger helpings of red meat to the MAGA-Americans who cheer him on at his rallies.
As for the reaction by journalists, that’s less clear. They should be less credulous and less distractible — and not be absorbed by Trump’s every outrageous tweet, offended by his every disparagement or willing to repeat, verbatim, his every misstatement.
If necessary, journalists should go to court, as CNN did over Jim Acosta’s press pass, to defend their rights. And they should find ways to let news consumers know the big picture of the Trump presidency, not just the drama du jour. Of course, if they follow that wise course, tensions and temperatures will soar. But that’s OK. In 2019, it’s going to happen anyway.
— Margaret Sullivan
(Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post.)
The president will remain in jeopardy
Predicting what special counsel Robert Mueller III might do next is always a precarious exercise. The new year could bring new indictments. It could see a final report summarizing his conclusions. Those are big ifs. But about this much, we can be (fairly) sure:
The extent and nature of President Trump’s contacts with Russians will continue to be an area of supreme political vulnerability. The special counsel has established that contacts between Trump associates and the Russian government began earlier and went on longer than the president has claimed. Mueller’s team has yet to answer publicly whether any of those interactions involved a criminal conspiracy. But even absent a “smoking gun” of collusion, Mueller has dramatically increased the political pressure on the president.
Trump is also in jeopardy from an investigation unrelated to Russia but closely tied to the special counsel’s inquiry. Allegations that Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen committed a felony while acting on his client’s instructions have stoked impeachment talk among congressional Democrats. Even some of Trump’s most reliable surrogates have speculated that prosecutors could file charges against him once he leaves the White House.
Other key lines of investigation remain open for Mueller: Did the president obstruct justice? Were people in Trump’s orbit in touch with Russia or WikiLeaks about stolen Democratic emails? And did he know about false testimony his aides and associates gave to Congress? The answer to any one of those questions could change the course of Trump’s presidency.
— Shane Harris
(Harris covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post. He has written two books, “The Watchers” and “@War.”)