Whoever wins the presidential election in November will confront urgent problems: Should tax cuts scheduled to expire be renewed? Should federal spending be cut to reduce the deficit or would that weaken an already lackluster economy? After one of the hottest summers on record, has the time come for the U.S. to adopt policies to slow climate change? Have sanctions against Iran impeded its nuclear program, and if not, does that make a military strike necessary? What to do about immigration?
Presidential campaigns only incidentally debate such issues. The warring camps seek to motivate major groups of voters by picking one or two issues to wield as weapons. The process simplifies — and often distorts — where the candidates stand.
In some cases, campaigns exaggerate small differences to create a contrast. On foreign policy, for example, President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have few differences in their substantive positions, although neither camp wants to admit that.
In other cases, candidates differ greatly but avoid spelling out their policies, fearing the details will prove less popular than generalities.
Romney, for example, says he wants to increase defense spending and cut tax rates by 20% while still balancing the budget. He hasn't said what he would do to make the numbers work. On a number of other major issues, Romney has avoided specifics, trying to keep the focus on Obama's economic record rather than debate policy choices.
Obama has been more forthcoming, but has elided some issues. He says, for example, that in a second term he would seek action on global warming, but has made only limited proposals. The "cap and trade" plan the House passed during his first year in office proved a nonstarter in the Senate and was blamed for contributing to Democrats' defeat in the 2010 midterm elections.
But campaigns do force candidates to make choices and promises. A president doesn't always get his way on those choices — many policies require legislation, which means a vote in Congress. Still, the choice of a president opens some options and closes others. Strip away the rhetoric and obfuscations of the campaign, and those differences stand out. What follows is our best effort to make clear where Obama and Romney stand on several major domestic and foreign policy issues that will face whichever man wins.
Improving the economy
For an election in which voters say the economy is their top concern, Obama and Romney have had relatively little to say about short-term steps to solve the nation's immediate economic problems — high unemployment and an ailing housing market.
Each has talked about longer-term policies — something about which they have deep philosophical disagreements. Both agree that government and private enterprise have a role to play. Romney is not a Ron Paul libertarian, and Obama is not a socialist. But within that broad framework, the emphasis of their policies is very different.
Obama stresses the role that government plays in economic growth. To expand, he says, the economy needs an educated workforce, up-to-date roads, bridges, railroads, ports and communications networks and the most modern technology. That means the government needs to spend money to build schools and highways, he says, or to help bring solar power or wind-energy technologies to the market.
He expresses his view that economic growth involves the entire society in words that Democrats have used at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt — as in the speech in Virginia during the summer from which Republicans grabbed their most prominent attack line:
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."
Romney, by contrast, focuses on the role of business owners in taking risks that generate jobs. Government should get out of the way of those risk-takers by spending less, taxing less and regulating less, he says. Do that, and entrepreneurs will invest in new businesses that will create jobs.
He draws on an even longer-standing American rhetorical tradition in his speeches on individual enterprise and economic growth:
"I don't want to transform America; I want to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity and small government that have made this nation the leader it is," he said in a speech in Wisconsin in March that he has repeated frequently.
"The best thing we can do for the economic well-being of the people of America is not to grow government; it is to restore freedom and opportunity. It is opportunity that has always driven America and defined us as Americans," he continued. "Government must make America the best place in the world for entrepreneurs, innovators, small business and big business — for job creators of all kinds. Business is not the enemy. It is the friend of jobs, of rising wages, and of the revenues government needs to care for the poor and the elderly, and to provide for the national defense."
By contrast, both men have been comparatively reticent about the short term, although for different reasons. Romney opposes most government intervention in the economy on philosophical grounds; Obama supports it in theory, but doesn't have the votes in Congress or the public support for a second round of economic stimulus.
Obama has proposed some short-term steps on jobs, mostly in an economic package he put forward last fall, which he called the American Jobs Act. Congress passed one element of his plan — an extension of the payroll tax cut — but blocked other proposals, which included money for states and local government to hire more teachers and federal funds to repair schools.
On housing, Obama has taken steps he could do without Congress. Most aim to ease the way for homeowners to refinance their mortgages at current low interest rates. Housing-market analysts have said the programs could help a couple of million homeowners, but as of this spring, the country still had more than 14 million homeowners who owed more than their homes were worth. Larger-scale programs repeatedly have foundered because of political opposition to any approach that appears to "bail out" some homeowners.