Candidates say they're about divergent visions, but both have offered few specifics for the future.
It looks and feels like a presidential contest, but at times it sounds like a national experiment in mind reading -- a great guessing game about the country's future.
The two campaigns insist that voters are about to make a momentous decision between sharply divergent visions for American life. But the candidates have largely failed to provide specifics about those visions, leaving voters to guess about the consequences of their choice. Almost half the voters say they want to know more about President Obama's plans for a second term, and almost two-thirds want to hear more about what Mitt Romney would do differently.
Romney has declined to reveal some crucial details about his tax plan. If he did, Romney's campaign has said, it would be harder to get Congress to go along with them later. "We want to get it done," said his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.
Obama is equally vague about his second-term plans. He sometimes sketches his agenda as a list of questions, which he still needs to answer.
For anyone trying to forecast the effect of November's election, the best place to start is health care. That's because there's already a law on the books that will bring noticeable changes in the next term. To make these changes happen, all Obama has to do is win.
In 2014, for instance, most Americans will be bound by the rule to buy health insurance or pay a fee. At the same time, insurance companies will be banned from denying coverage for "preexisting conditions." And insurers will be prohibited from imposing annual dollar limits on benefits.
If Romney is elected, by contrast, he has promised to seek the law's repeal and allow individual states to craft their own health-care plans. If he were to succeed, the much-maligned mandate would vanish. But so would more well-liked pieces of the law, one of which allows children to remain on their parents' health-care plans until age 26 (which Romney has indicated he might want to restore), and bans insurance companies from imposing "lifetime caps" on coverage.
Financial regulation law
Another potential impact: If Obama survives for a second term, so too will the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. Next year, the government is set to implement parts of that law that will require mortgage lenders to make sure borrowers can afford the loans they're taking out. Another piece will protect from foreclosure borrowers who are trying a loan modification.
Romney wants to repeal the broader law and replace it with more "streamlined" regulations. Bankers say that would help consumers by freeing banks from overly burdensome regulations and paperwork. It would mean those new mortgage laws would disappear, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set up to enforce them.
Beyond those subjects, it gets even harder to forecast. For Obama, that's because many of his ideas have already been shot down. His "Buffett rule," which would mean tax increases for some people earning more than $1 million, fizzled in Congress. As did the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would give a company's employees more power to sue for punitive damages if they found evidence of wage discrimination between men and women. As did the American Jobs Act, a massive $447 billion bill to invest in infrastructure and hire teachers and firefighters.
Romney has proposed a slew of sweeping new ideas. He wants to cut $20 billion from federal spending. He wants to eliminate the "death tax," end capital gains taxes for people making less than $200,000 and cut everybody's marginal tax rate by one-fifth across the board.
But he also wants to slash tax loopholes and special breaks so that there isn't an overall drop in the amount of tax money coming in. That would be a difficult task, because each loophole usually has a strong lobbying group ready to defend it.