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Republican Mitt Romney blames President Obama for annual trillion-dollar deficits adding to what is now a $16 trillion national debt. Nonpartisan analysts agree that Obama inherited a bad hand: The 2009 deficit was a projected $1.2 trillion when he took office because of Bush-era policies and an economic crisis that slashed tax collections and increased spending for jobless aid and other safety-net programs. He has added $1.4 trillion in stimulus spending and tax cuts, and he has continued the Bush policies that Democrats blame for the swing from surpluses to deficits: income tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit and war operations.
Obama has proposed bringing deficits down by slowing spending gradually, to avoid suddenly tipping the economy back into recession. He'd raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 and impose a surcharge of 30 percent on those making more than $1 million. And the health care law, rather than adding $1 trillion to deficits as Romney says, includes offsetting cost savings and tax increases.
Romney's deficit-reduction plans are hard to assess, given his lack of detail, and they would not fully kick in for years, but analysts say they could lead to a larger debt in the next decade than Obama's agenda would. They cite Romney's proposals for new tax cuts, an increase in military spending and a delay until 2022 in remaking Medicare. He said many of his tax cuts would be partly negated by his proposals to lower top tax rates on corporations and individuals.
Almost every U.S. taxpayer faces a significant tax increase next year, unless Congress and the White House agree on a plan to extend a huge collection of tax cuts expiring at year's end. Obama wants to extend Bush-era tax cuts again, but only for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000. Romney wants to extend all those tax cuts and enact new ones, dropping all income tax rates by 20 percent. Romney says he would pay for that by eliminating or reducing tax credits, deductions and exemptions. But he won't say which ones would go.
Both candidates favor government action to stimulate growth and job creation -- just different kinds. In the jobs bill that Obama sent to Congress a year ago, he proposed temporary tax cuts but also more aid for struggling state and local governments to prevent further teacher layoffs; money for roads and other infrastructure projects and federal investments in alternative energy, education and scientific research. Republicans blocked those proposals. Romney instead advocates cutting tax rates permanently to increase incentives for investment and hiring. He backs deep domestic spending cuts, but says he would phase in the reductions.
Obama supports abortion rights. And his health care law requires contraceptives to be available for free for women in workplace health plans. Romney opposes abortion rights, though he previously supported them. He says the Supreme Court ruling establishing abortion rights should be reversed, allowing states to ban abortion. He's also criticized mandatory coverage for contraception as a threat to religious liberty. Romney's ability as president to enact federal abortion restrictions would be limited unless Republicans gained firm control of Congress. But the next president could have great influence over abortion policy if vacancies arise on the Supreme Court.
Washington contributes a small fraction of education money, but it influences teacher quality, accessibility and more. For example, to be freed from provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, states had to develop federally approved reforms. Romney wants more state and local control over education. But he supports some of Obama's proposals, notably charter schools and teacher evaluations. So, look for them to be there whoever wins.
Both sides of the debate agree on this much: The issue defines what sort of nation the United States will be. Obama supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, as a matter decided by states. Romney says same-sex marriage should be banned with a constitutional amendment. Four states have gay-marriage measures on their ballots. In Minnesota, the vote is whether to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state are voting on whether to legalize gay marriage. Thus far, foes of gay marriage have prevailed in all 32 states where the issue reached the ballot.
Both candidates agree that the health care program for older Americans, the single-biggest contributor to projected deficits, cannot continue growing at current rates. They disagree on how, and how much, to curb it.
Romney favors shifting from the open-ended, fee-for-service Medicare program to one giving each beneficiary a fixed annual amount to buy private insurance or a Medicare option. He has not proposed what the amount of the voucherlike payments would be, so potential budget savings and impact on beneficiaries are impossible to judge.
Obama, who says Romney would "voucherize" the program, instead backs marginal changes, including lower payments to providers of health care like doctors and insurers. He has not specified further steps to keep Medicare solvent.
Romney's claim that Obama has taken $716 billion from Medicare benefits to pay for the health care law has been widely debunked. The cuts would affect those providing health care, not beneficiaries. The health law, in fact, expanded Medicare benefits. Ryan included identical savings in Republican budgets he passed in the House.
Unless Congress acts, the trust funds that support Social Security are on pace to run out of money in 2033, triggering an automatic 25 percent cut in benefits that millions of older Americans rely on for most of their income. That may seem far off. But the sooner Congress acts, the more time to phase in changes slowly. Obama hasn't laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. Romney proposes a gradual increase in the retirement age and, for future beneficiaries, slower growth in benefits for the wealthy.
The stakes now are similar to what caused the United States to invade almost 11 years ago: the threat of more Al-Qaida attacks. Obama says U.S. forces must not leave until Afghan forces can defend the country on their own. Otherwise the Taliban would regain power and Al-Qaida might again launch attacks from there. Rival Romney appears to share that view. The United States plans to end its combat role by the end of 2014.
At its core, the debate over how much to spends on defense gets down to this: What is it that the United States should be defending against? Obama wants more restraint in military spending while Romney favors expansion. Obama also wants more focus on Asia-Pacific security, reflecting China's military modernization. But that and other elements of military strategy could come apart if Washington doesn't find a way to avoid automatic budget cuts starting in January.
An estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants live and work in the United States. In June, Obama decided to allow as many as 1.7 million of young illegal immigrants to stay for up to two years. Romney supports completing a fence at the border and other tough measures, but has softened his stance from the primaries, when he said he believed in "self-deportation."