U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan, 11 years after they invaded. Why? The answer boils down to one word: al-Qaida. The goal is to damage the terrorist group enough to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.
Where they stand:
After nearly tripling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009-10, President Barack Obama is pulling them out, aiming to end all U.S. combat there by December 2014. He says Afghans are now "perfectly capable" of defending themselves, allowing U.S. troops to leave. Mitt Romney now endorses ending combat in 2014, saying flatly "we're going to be finished" then.
Why it matters:
Only small numbers of al-Qaida fighters are still in Afghanistan, and their iconic leader, Osama bin Laden, is long dead. But the threat they represent is still the main reason Americans are still fighting and dying there.
The logic goes like this: If U.S. and allied forces were to leave before the Afghans can defend themselves, the Taliban would regain power. And if they were in charge, then al-Qaida would not be far behind.
In that view of what's at stake, al-Qaida would once again have a launching pad for attacks on American soil.
What's harder to explain is why it has taken so long to train the Afghan forces. And what if it turns out that by 2014 they are losing ground against the Taliban? Would the U.S. send more forces back in to avoid a Taliban takeover? Asked that question directly in the final presidential debate, both Romney and Obama sidestepped, insisting that the U.S. combat mission will end on time.
From an American point of view, what is at stake in Afghanistan is avoiding a repeat of 9/11. But it is also true that the United States is war-weary and faces threats on other fronts. Some of those threats have arisen as a consequence of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, just weeks after the traumatizing 9/11 attacks.
Al-Qaida has migrated to other countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and various spots in North Africa.
Thus, al-Qaida remains a worry, but its presence in Afghanistan does not seem to trouble many Americans. Although 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and more than 2,000 have died there since 2001, the war is hardly an issue in the presidential campaign.
It's perhaps a measure of the public's inattention to Afghanistan that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta felt it necessary to say at a Pentagon news conference that it was important to "remind the American people that there is a war going on."
He added, with an allusion to the al-Qaida threat: "Young men and women are dying in order to try to protect this country."
The outcome in Afghanistan also is important because of the enormous investment in human lives over the past decade. To let it unravel and revert to a pre-9/11, Taliban rule would be seen by many as dishonoring those sacrifices.
The government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler is one of the most polarizing issues of the presidential campaign. Many Americans wonder why $62 billion in tax dollars went to keeping the two automakers afloat in 2008 and 2009. There's little doubt the bailout saved the automakers and huge numbers of jobs. But there's also little chance the government will get all its money back.
Taxpayers are out about $1 billion on the Chrysler bailout. GM stock is selling for less than half the price needed for the government to recover all of its nearly $50 billion investment.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama often boasts about the bailout's success, saying the decision saved about 1 million jobs at automakers, parts companies and other businesses tied to the industry. That estimate is backed by a 2010 study by the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank. Obama doesn't want to sell the government's remaining 500 million GM shares at a huge loss, but also says he's not interested in being a long-term investor or running the company.
Republican Mitt Romney has argued that GM and Chrysler should have been sent into bankruptcy protection without government money to keep the companies running. Instead, he said private loans should have paid for the bankruptcies. But because of the financial crisis and because both companies were bleeding cash, there was no private capital available at the time. Romney advocated government-guaranteed private loans for both companies after bankruptcy and also said the government should back their warranties. He would "responsibly sell" the GM shares but has given no time frame.
Why it matters:
GM and Chrysler are major employers, with most of their operations in the Midwest, including Ohio, a pivotal presidential state. Without the bailout, it's likely the companies would have been forced into liquidation. Their factories, office buildings and patents would have been sold at auction and their workers would have lost their jobs.
Now, three years after the bailout, both companies are profitable and selling more cars. GM has made almost $14 billion since leaving bankruptcy protection in July 2009. Chrysler has made $440 million since exiting bankruptcy a month before GM. But the automaker is still a private company, and it did not report numbers for the second half of 2009.
Both companies also are hiring when many employers aren't. GM has added roughly 2,000 U.S. workers since leaving bankruptcy and now employs 79,000 in the U.S. Chrysler has added almost 12,000 workers and now has about 44,000 in the U.S. Since the bailout started in early 2008, under President George W. Bush, the number of jobs in U.S. auto and parts manufacturing has grown by 156,000 to 780,700, according to government statistics. It's progress for an industry whose workforce is still far below its peak of more than 1.3 million jobs in 2000.
Here's the bottom line on the federal money: In exchange for a $12.5 billion bailout of Chrysler and its financial arm, the government got $7.1 billion in debt and a 9.9 percent equity stake in Chrysler. Chrysler has repaid the loans and parent company Fiat bought the government stock. The government got back $11.2 billion, but won't get any more.
At GM, the government is $27 billion in the hole on a $49.5 billion bailout. Although taxpayers own 26.5 percent of GM stock, the shares are trading for less than half the $53 price needed for the government to recoup all its money.
This presidential election is on track to cost more than $1 billion. It’s a staggering tab, and those who kick in big money to cover it stand to gain outsized influence over policy decisions by whoever wins. Your voice may not be heard as loudly as a result.
Where they stand:
Both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney benefit from current campaign finance rules. Both have outside “super” political committees working in their favor. Those groups can raise unlimited cash to help them win the White House this November. Obama has argued in favor of campaign finance restrictions, particularly when he chastised a Supreme Court ruling during his 2010 State of the Union address that helped to strip away limits on how money can be spent in elections. Romney supports the high court’s decision, commonly known as Citizens United, but says he wishes he could find a way to get money out of politics. Both men are using the lax rules with gusto.
Why it matters:
Money has always gone hand-in-hand with politics. But recent court decisions have stripped away restrictions on how elections are financed, allowing the very rich to afford more speech than the rest of us. In turn, super PACs have flourished, thanks as well to limitless contributions from millionaires and billionaires, including major contributors who have business before the government. Public disclosure of campaign finances gives voters a look into who’s behind those pricey — and often very misleading — television ads trying to get Obama re-elected or Romney to take his place. But the information is often so vague as to be almost impenetrable. To boot, nonprofit outfits run so-called issue ads that help or hurt candidates, but don’t have to reveal their donors. Advocates pushing for campaign finance changes say disclosure — put in place during the Watergate era — fosters accountability by allowing the public to evaluate who’s financing candidates and if those bankrollers have conflicts of interests. Take Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who has contributed $30 million to super PACs supporting Republican candidates and has attended major Romney fundraising events. Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. has been under scrutiny by regulators and the Justice Department for its dealings in China. Adelson’s representatives say the probe stems from a disgruntled employee’s accusations.Whatever the case, would those investigations disappear if Romney were elected president? Would they under Obama if Adelson suddenly gave lots of cash to a super PAC supporting his re-election? Obama, for his part, had to return more than $200,000 in donations from a family tied to a Mexican fugitive.The presidency isn’t the only office affected by super PAC spending. Outside groups have doled out millions in ads to influence congressional races. And the Supreme Court recently said its 2010 ruling allowing corporations to use unlimited money applies to states, too. So would a developer push a city councilman out of office if he opposes a zoning law? Can an influential businesswoman see favorable laws passed from a state senator who benefited from millions of dollars in ads she bought to support him in last election? Proponents of such looser rules say there should be few, if any, limits on what is essentially free speech. They say that not just the wealthy benefit; everyone can pool money to run ads. Some say even federal disclosure rules are anathema to anonymous speech. For now, state and federal disclosure rules remain intact and give the public a look — albeit a narrow one — into big donors backing the very candidates who write and enforce laws.
What, exactly, is discrimination, and what should be done to fight it? This election offers choices on the answers.In areas such as mortgages, voter identification and immigration enforcement, the presidential candidates differ over how to use laws that guarantee equality and how far the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which exerts strong influence on issues of race and ethnicity, should go to ensure all Americans are treated fairly. The election also will shape the Justice Department’s actions in continuing court cases that challenge voter ID laws in some Republican-led states. Opponents contend such laws unfairly discourage minority voting.
Where they stand:
Under President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, the civil rights division has aggressively prosecuted cases where statistics show that blacks and Hispanics are hit harder than whites. These cases include accusations that banks used discriminatory lending practices and that states passed voter identification laws that would keep a disproportionate percentage of minorities from voting. Republican Mitt Romney agrees with very little that Holder has done. He supports voter ID laws, saying they prevent fraud and don’t discriminate. Under recent Republican presidents, the Justice Department has limited its enforcement to cases with evidence of intentional discrimination — not where statistics show that minorities were broadly disadvantaged by a particular practice.
Why it matters:
The philosophy of the current civil rights division is that race and ethnicity still have a major impact on American opportunity and that statistics can prove discrimination. Romney has not made his beliefs clear, but conservatives generally believe that race matters far less than individual responsibility and that discrimination is proved by actions — not numbers.Under Holder, the Justice Department has used lawsuits based on statistics to hold banks’ feet to the fire on how they lend money to Hispanics and black people. For example, it obtained a $335 million settlement in a lawsuit that accused Countrywide Financial Corp. of charging more than 200,000 qualified Hispanic and black borrowers higher rates than white borrowers with similar credit profiles. And a settlement with Wells Fargo Bank provides $125 million for borrowers who were allegedly steered into subprime mortgages or who allegedly paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers. On the flip side, Holder’s Justice Department has been accused by two former civil rights division lawyers of going too far in the other direction by refusing to prosecute minorities when they discriminate against others. They point to the decision by the Justice Department shortly after Obama’s election to seek a narrower civil injunction than the Bush administration had against the tiny New Black Panther Party, which was accused of intimidating white voters at one Philadelphia precinct in 2008.In any event, a more conservative Justice Department could set a higher bar for action against discrimination — it would be unlikely to sue without evidence of intentional bias, instead of statistical disparities.A Romney administration also would be likely to view measures such as Arizona’s tough immigration law more sympathetically. The Supreme Court struck down major parts of the law but upheld the provision requiring police, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally. Critics say that will lead to racial profiling of Hispanics, a point that resonates with Obama. “No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” he said. Romney saw the ruling differently: “Given the failure of the immigration policy of this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states.”
The risk of a devastating cyberattack on the United States is real. But is it too remote to justify the costs of countermeasures? That's the quandary. There's no question the country remains vulnerable to an electronic Pearl Harbor as debate goes on over the role the federal government should play in securing computer networks that control the electrical grid, water supply and other critical sectors.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama wants owners and operators of essential U.S. infrastructure to meet minimum cybersecurity standards that the private sector and federal agencies would develop together. He says federal agencies and businesses should exchange information about looming cyberthreats or malicious software that can damage computer networks.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says within his first 100 days in office he would order all federal agencies to develop a national strategy to deter and defend the country from cyberattacks. Romney's Republican allies in Congress support the sharing of cyberthreat information but oppose giving Washington a say in how the private sector protects its networks.
Why it matters:
Without warning, the electricity goes out, leaving you and your family in the dark for days, perhaps weeks. Or the gates of a dam holding back millions of gallons of water open suddenly and flood towns below. Or pipes in a chemical plant rupture, releasing deadly gas.
Any one, or all, of these nightmare scenarios could be invisibly set in motion by hackers, terrorist groups or foreign governments with the motivation and technical knowhow. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command, has rated the country's preparedness for a major cyberattack as poor, a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.
But Congress hasn't taken action to bolster digital defenses.
The ideological divisions between Republicans and Democrats have grown so wide that the parties can't agree on how to confront a risk they acknowledge is real. At its core, the stalemate is a microcosm of the larger argument underpinning the presidential campaign: How involved should the federal government be in the economy and people's lives?
The risk to critical infrastructure comes from the heavy reliance of these industries on computer systems that remotely control functions once handled by humans, such as the opening and closing of valves and breakers, the switching of railroad tracks and the detection of leaks in oil and gas pipelines. Sending false commands to these systems or disabling them could be disastrous.
Obama says holding companies to minimum security standards would ensure no one is cutting corners. Republicans say that approach will only lead to costly, time-consuming regulations and red tape that won't reduce the risk.
Both sides agree there needs to be a way to share sensitive information about incoming attacks. Yet there are disagreements over how best to ensure these exchanges don't violate rights to privacy or civil liberties.
Politics isn't the only hurdle. The impact of a major cyberattack is hard to grasp because the U.S. hasn't been the target of one. That means less pressure on Congress to act. Cybersecurity experts worry it will take an actual attack to get people sufficiently concerned. The Stuxnet computer worm that infiltrated Iran's nuclear program is a reminder of how debilitating an electronic assault can be.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer, worries a cyberattack on critical infrastructure would imperil the armed forces, as well as civilians, because commercial transportation systems and electrical grids are part of the nation's defenses.
"The uncomfortable reality of our world today is that bits and bytes can be as threatening as bullets and bombs," Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told lawmakers.
A sea of red ink is confronting the nation and presidents to come.
The budget deficit — the shortfall created when the government spends more in a given year than it collects in taxes and fees— is on track to top $1 trillion for the fourth straight year. When there's not enough to pay current bills, the government borrows, mostly by selling interest-bearing Treasury bonds, bills and notes to investors and governments worldwide. It now borrows about 40 cents of every dollar it spends.
The national debt refers to the total amount the federal government owes; the deficit is just a one-year slice.
The U.S. has been borrowing since the 1700s, when it needed money to finance the American Revolution. The outstanding debt has since risen to a shade over $16 trillion. While there's plenty of finger-pointing by politicians over who's to blame, deficits historically surge during wars and deep recessions, and the U.S. has had both in the past decade.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has proposed bringing deficits down by slowing spending gradually, to avoid suddenly tipping the economy back into recession. To help, he would raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 annually and impose a surcharge of 30 percent on those making more than $1 million.
He acknowledges his spending on recession-fighting stimulus, tax relief and bailout programs — much of it started under President George W. Bush — has contributed to the deficit. But so have bipartisan agreements to extend Bush-era tax cuts, and paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Also raising deficits: a drop in tax revenues as more people found themselves out of work and personal and corporate incomes that sagged in the deepest downturn since the Great Depression.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney would lower deficits mostly through deep spending cuts, including some of the reductions proposed by his conservative running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee. But many of the cuts they're pushing would be partially negated by their proposals to lower top tax rates on both corporations and individuals.
Why it matters:
Deficits and debt are important because it's never good to spend more than you make for too long. The party out of power always makes deficits a big issue against the one holding the White House — as Democrats did in 2008 and Republicans are doing now.
Leaders of both parties agree the burden will become unsustainable if borrowing is not reined in while interest obligations keep rising. But huge policy differences exist over how to balance the budget or at least trim deficits to manageable levels — whether through spending cuts, tax increases or a mix.
Obama and Democrats tend to favor a combination, while Republicans mostly want just spending cuts, although Romney and Ryan say they'd also end some tax deductions and close loopholes — without specifying which ones.
Congress sets a ceiling on how much the government can borrow. If this debt limit is breached, the government will default on its obligations. This has never happened, but it almost did last summer in a Capitol Hill standoff. As a consequence, the nation's credit rating was downgraded for the first time ever.
The current $16.4 trillion debt limit will be reached late this year or early next. A slew of tax breaks will expire at the same time.
No matter who wins, he'll immediately have his hands full.
Is the U.S. spending enough money on defense, and is it spending it in the right ways? In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the money spigot was turned wide open, pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanding the armed forces. Now that's changing, and an important issue in the election is whether budget cuts have gone too far.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama wants to put the brakes on growth in the defense budget. He reasons that a new era of austerity at the Pentagon won't hurt American security. Earlier this year, Obama adopted a military strategy to fit leaner budgets and to take into account that U.S. troops are winding down a decade of wars.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney takes a far different view. He argues that Obama has presided over a military decline, and defense budgets need to grow faster. He wants to add tens of billions of dollars a year to the Pentagon's core budget, particularly to build Navy ships at a faster pace and to reverse troop cuts.
Why it matters:
There are plenty of potential security threats on the horizon, not to mention an unfinished war in Afghanistan.
The size and shape of the defense budget go a long way toward determining whether the U.S. can influence events abroad, prevent new wars and be ready for those it can't avoid. It also fuels the domestic defense industry in ways that affect the economic vitality of communities large and small across the country.
The Pentagon's budget, including war costs, is $670 billion this year, or about 18 percent of total federal spending. The dollar amount has more than doubled since 2001, when the U.S. began a decade of wars. Under Obama's plan it would grow by $259 billion less over the next five years than previously envisioned.
The hope is to align defense budgets with the most worrisome security threats, Iran being a case in point. Its suspected drive to build a nuclear weapon could lead to war. Diplomacy is at the forefront of Obama's strategy for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, but at the same time he is building up U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region near Iran, including missile defenses that could protect Gulf allies in the event of an Iran war.
Obama also wants more focus on Asia-Pacific security issues, starting with China's rapid military modernization. But that and other elements of his new military strategy could come apart at the seams if Congress and the administration don't come up with a way to avoid automatic budget cuts starting in January.
If such a budget deal is not reached in time, the Pentagon would absorb an additional $500 billion in cuts over the decade. That was put in place by a bipartisan deal reached in August 2011 between the White House and Congress.
At its core, the debate over whether the U.S. is spending enough on defense — and whether the dollars are being invested wisely — gets down to this: What should America defend against? Is it the al-Qaida terrorist network, which has been the central focus of U.S. defense strategy for a decade but is now in decline? Is it China, which is gaining military strength and flexing its muscle in regional disputes? Is it Russia, whose nuclear arsenal is the only one in the world still capable, in theory, of destroying the United States?
One lesson of 9/11 and the two wars that followed is that the U.S. has a poor track record of preparing for the right threat.
States and local governments have the primary responsibility for education in the United States. But the federal government gets a big say, too, by awarding billions in aid, often with strings attached.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney agree that the No Child Left Behind education law needs revisions. But by including things like charter schools and teacher evaluations in his education policies, Obama has angered part of his base — the teachers' unions. Romney says those initiatives "make sense," but he also wants parents to have a greater choice in deciding where to send their children to school. He and Obama differ on voucher programs that use public money to send children to private schools.
Obama has called for college to be more accessible and won approval from Congress for a $10,000 college tax credit over four years and increases in Pell grants and other financial aid. Romney argues that increases in federal student aid encourage tuition to go up, too. He wants to see private lenders return to the federal student loan program. The two found common ground in supporting moves to block a doubling of interest rates on new federal Stafford loans this fall.
Why it matters:
"What did you do in school today?" It's a universal question asked by parents.
More than 8 in 10 Americans say education is an issue that is extremely or very important to them, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this year. Only the economy ranked higher.
Yet, studies show that the United States lags behind other countries in reading, math and science, statistics frequently cited as hurting the nation's ability to compete globally.
And the cost of higher education is leaving students saddled with debt — or unable to afford it at all — when there's a growing recognition that students need college or some post-high school training to succeed in the job market. Obama, in fact, challenged all Americans to commit to at least one year of college or career training. Yet, as many recent graduates are finding out, there's no guarantee that a diploma will translate into a job.
At the same time, state budget cuts have resulted in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and fewer special subjects in elementary and secondary schools. Colleges and universities also have had to make do with less. All of this trickles down to the kids and their classroom experience.
The federal government contributed just a small fraction of the more than $1.15 trillion spent nationally on education during the last school year, but it still yields great influence over such issues as accessibility, accountability and teacher quality.
Obama's "Race to the Top" competition, for example, has given billions of dollars in grants to states that pursued education policies the president supports. Similarly, when it became apparent that states were nowhere near meeting the key requirement of the No Child Left Behind education law — that all children be up to speed in math and reading by 2014 — the Obama administration offered them waivers, but only if they came up with reform plans that were approved by the federal government. Republicans charged that the administration was usurping the power of Congress.
Still, the result is more breathing room for schools, their teachers and the students they serve.
Romney has spoken out in favor of some of the reform proposals that Obama wants to put into place, notably providing incentives for charter schools and better teacher and student evaluations. So, look for those proposals to stay no matter who wins the White House.
Americans depend on energy for everything from driving their cars to powering factories, homes and offices — and of course our smartphones, laptops and tablets. How that energy is produced and where it comes from affect jobs, the economy and the environment.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama proposes an "all of the above" strategy that embraces traditional energy sources such as oil and coal, along with natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydropower. Obama has spent billions to promote "green energy" and backs a tax credit for the wind industry that his Republican rival Mitt Romney opposes. While production of renewable energy has soared, critics point to several high-profile failures, including Solyndra, a California solar company that went bankrupt, costing taxpayers more than $500 million.
Romney pledges to make the U.S. independent of energy sources outside of North America by 2020, through more aggressive exploitation of domestic oil, gas, coal and other resources and quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. Obama blocked the pipeline because of environmental concerns but supports approval of a segment of it.
Why it matters:
Every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence — a goal that remains elusive. In 2011, the U.S. relied on net imports for about 45 percent of the petroleum it used, much from Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Still, U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined in recent years, in part because of the economic downturn, improved efficiency and changes in consumer behavior. At the same time, domestic production of all types of energy has increased, spurred by improved drilling techniques and discoveries of vast oil supplies in North Dakota and natural gas in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia. Production also is booming in traditional energy states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
The natural gas boom has led to increased production, jobs and profits — and a drop in natural gas prices for consumers. Natural gas, a cleaner alternative to coal, has generally been embraced by politicians from both parties.
Still there are concerns. Critics worry that popular drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which allow drillers to reach previously inaccessible wells, could harm air, water and health. Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, involves blasting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to stimulate the release of gas. Environmental groups and some public health advocates say the chemicals have polluted drinking water supplies, but the industry says there is no proof.
Similarly, the Keystone XL pipeline could help make the nation more energy secure — or pollute the environment in the event of a spill. Developer TransCanada says the 1,700-mile pipeline from western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast would pipe more than 1 million barrels of oil per day, more than 5 percent of the nation's current oil consumption.
Opponents say the pipeline would bring "dirty oil" that would be hard to clean up after a spill.
Wind and solar power have grown, thanks in part to support from Obama, but their success is tenuous. Besides Solyndra, several solar companies have declared bankruptcy in part because of Chinese competition. Wind companies are laying off workers while Congress dithers on a tax credit crucial to the industry.
The changes aren't likely to have an immediate effect on the cost of the energy source Americans are most familiar with: gasoline. Gas prices are dependent on crude oil prices, which are set on the global market.
Everyone wants clean air and water. But people also want to drive their cars whenever they wish and light up a room by flipping a switch. It's a never-ending balancing act for government as it tries to protect health and the environment while promoting economic growth and jobs.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama achieved historic increases in fuel-economy standards that would save drivers money at the pump while raising the cost of new vehicles. The administration also imposed the first-ever regulations on heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming and tightened standards on toxic mercury pollution from power plants. It also set new standards lowering the amount of soot that can be released into the air.
Obama failed to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass limits he promised on carbon emissions and shelved a plan to toughen health standards on lung-damaging smog.
Republican Mitt Romney has expressed doubts about the cause of climate change and criticized Obama's treatment of coal-fired power plants as punitive. He opposes treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and wants to amend clean water and air laws to ensure the cost of complying with regulations is balanced against environmental benefits.
Why it matters:
Federal rule-makers always face a tension between protecting people from getting sick or injured while preserving jobs and keeping government power in check. The Obama administration has been accused by Romney and other Republicans of tilting too far in favor of regulation.
The Environmental Protection Agency in particular has come under sharp criticism for issuing the first-ever regulations aimed at reducing gases blamed for global warming and for a separate rule cracking down on mercury pollution from power plants.
The greenhouse gas rules will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from factories and power plants, as well as from automobile tailpipes. The power plant rule controls mostly older, coal-fired plants.
The EPA says it had no choice but to act after concluding that carbon dioxide and other pollutants endanger human health and welfare. Power plants are the largest source of manmade mercury in the environment. Mercury is a toxic metal that's known to impair brain development in children, including those exposed in the womb.
The new rule will have a major impact on coal, which accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. electricity production. Dozens of coal-fired plants across the country could be forced to shut or spend billions on plant upgrades.
Changing economics, including low natural gas prices and reduced electricity demand, are also major factors in coal-plant retirements. Most of the plants likely to close are decades old and inefficient.
Obama maintains he has focused on common-sense rules. In January 2011, he ordered federal agencies to get rid of rules that were overly burdensome, redundant or inconsistent. The ax fell on hundreds of regulations.
One high-profile reversal was on a pledge to strengthen restrictions on lung-damaging smog. Obama had promised to impose a standard that was stricter than one left in place by former President George W. Bush. But after months of review, the White House halted the new smog standards, explaining it was acting to reduce regulatory burdens and uncertainty in a shaky economy.
Many of the delayed rules could take effect in a second Obama term. Romney is likely to try to relax or scrap them.
The job market is brutal and the economy weak. More than 12 million Americans can't find work; the unemployment rate fell in September but is still at a recession-level 7.8 percent. It had been more than 8 percent for 43 straight months. A divided Washington has done little to ease the misery.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama wants to create jobs by keeping income taxes low for everyone but the wealthiest, and by spending more on public works as well as offering targeted tax breaks to businesses. Mitt Romney wants to keep low tax rates for everyone, including the wealthy; slash corporate taxes; relax or repeal regulations on businesses; and encourage production of oil and natural gas.
Why it matters:
The economy didn't take off when the recession ended in June 2009. Growth has never been slower in the three years after a downturn. The human toll is staggering. Forty percent of the jobless, 4.8 million people, have been out of work six months or more — a "national crisis," according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Millions of Americans have given up looking for work.
The agonizing recovery is the consequence of the deepest recession since the 1930s. The economy lost a staggering 8.8 million jobs and has only clawed back 4.6 million, or 53 percent. A financial crisis dried up credit. Collapsing home prices destroyed $5.9 trillion worth of home equity — the biggest source of wealth for most families. More than 1 in 5 homeowners is stuck with a house worth less than the mortgage on it. Feeling poorer, families have limited their spending and paid down debts.
Weeks after taking office, Obama pushed $862 billion worth of tax cuts and government spending programs through Congress. The package was meant to generate economic growth and revive hiring. Romney and other Republicans have declared the stimulus program a failure. But most economists — and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — say it kept unemployment from going even higher.
Still, faced with a persistently sluggish economy, Obama proposed another plan last year to rev up hiring with increased spending on public works projects and tax breaks to small businesses. But most of his $447 billion jobs plan went nowhere, blocked by congressional Republicans who say government programs to help the economy accomplish little other than swelling the $11.2 trillion federal debt — $16 trillion if you include money government agencies owe each other.
They advocate lower taxes and fewer government regulations. Specifically, they want to repeal Obama's health care law and a law that tightened regulations on Wall Street.
With the politicians paralyzed, the Federal Reserve has stepped in, pushing short-term interest rates to zero and pouring more than $2 trillion into financial markets by buying Treasury debt and mortgages. The central bank's actions may have kept the economy from slipping back into recession, but they have not stimulated healthy economic growth.
Republicans and Democrats also will have to find some common ground before the year ends to prevent the economy from falling off a "fiscal cliff." If they don't reach a budget deal, about $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases will start to kick in next year. The threat of the fiscal shock is meant to force Republicans and Democrats to compromise. Otherwise, the combination of spending cuts and tax increases probably would send the economy back into recession and drive unemployment back to 9 percent next year, according to CBO estimates.
Europe is struggling to control a debt crisis, save the euro currency and stop a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis that sent the world spinning into recession. The continent's troubles are the No. 1 threat to the fragile U.S. economy. If the crisis spreads to the U.S., Americans could find it harder to get loans and the country could slip back into recession.
Where they stand:
Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has offered plans for Europe. The U.S. government lacks the cash and the will to rescue European countries struggling with huge debts. Obama has urged Europe to act more decisively. Romney has used the crisis to warn that the United States will face its own day of reckoning if it doesn't reduce the federal debt.
Why it matters:
Europe buys 22 percent of the goods America exports. U.S. companies have invested heavily in Europe. So any economic slowdown in Europe dents U.S. exports and corporate profits. But the biggest fear is that a European financial crisis will flare up and move west across the Atlantic — the way Wall Street's 2008 crisis moved east to Europe — with dire consequences for the U.S. economy.
Europeans are struggling to repair a system that was flawed from the start. The euro, introduced in 1999, makes it easier to do business across Europe; no more changing francs to deutschemarks when French and German companies do business. But the common currency joined countries with vastly different economies and political cultures — and each got to keep running its own budget. During the 2000s, banks were willing to overlook the differences and lend at low rates to countries like Greece with dubious records of fiscal discipline. Lenders knew they'd be repaid in euros, not local currencies that could be devalued by inflation. Greece and other countries took advantage of the easy money. Their debts proved crushing after the recession hit.
To fix their finances, European countries have cut government spending and raised taxes. Greece, Portugal and Ireland had to tighten their belts to qualify for bailouts. But the austerity has taken a toll. Europe is sliding into recession. The pressure might force Greece to abandon the euro and revive its old currency, the drachma. Other countries — notably Italy and Spain — might follow Greece out of the eurozone.
Abandoning the euro would free countries from an economic straitjacket. When they joined the eurozone, they surrendered control of interest rates to the European Central Bank, so they cannot cut their own rates to boost their economies. Nor can they push down their currencies to give their exporters a price advantage and trade their way out of trouble.
But breaking up the eurozone would be dangerous. Borrowers in countries that left the eurozone would struggle to produce enough money in their weak local currencies to repay old debts denominated in much stronger euros. As debts soured, Europe's banking system would freeze. Its economy would follow. The pain would spread. Worried about a crackup, investors are demanding higher rates on Italian and Spanish debt, driving those countries' borrowing costs to unsustainable levels.
Is there any way out? European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has promised to "do whatever it takes" to save the euro by buying government bonds, pushing down interest rates and providing relief to Italy and Spain. Some economists call for eurozone countries to assume joint responsibility for the weakest countries' debts. Germans oppose so-called eurobonds, arguing they would give strapped countries less incentive to put their finances in order and would raise Germany's own borrowing costs.
On one aspect of whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry, both sides agree: The issue defines what kind of nation we are. Half a dozen states and the District of Columbia have made history by legalizing it, but it's prohibited elsewhere, and 30 states have placed bans in their constitutions.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, as a matter decided by states. He's also repudiated the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and affirms the right of states to refuse to recognize such marriages. The administration no longer defends the law in court, but it remains on the books. Republican Mitt Romney says same-sex marriage should be banned with a constitutional amendment, not left to states. He also opposes civil unions if they are equivalent to marriage, and says states should decide what rights and benefits should be allowed for same-sex couples.
Why it matters:
The debate divides the public down the middle, according to recent polls, and stirs up passionate feelings on both sides.
Those who oppose it often invoke religious teachings, contending that their faith cannot condone legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples. They worry about conflicts between religious liberty and public policy if gay marriage spreads to more states and gains federal recognition.
Gay-marriage supporters cite examples of devoted same-sex couples — some partners for decades, some raising children — and say it's unfair to deny them the same rights as heterosexual couples.
"It's about what kind of country we are," said Lee Swislow of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a Boston-based legal group that has won several landmark court rulings. "Do we treat each other the way we want to be treated?"
The Maryland Catholic Conference recently summed up the views of many who oppose same-sex marriage.
"The average citizen of Maryland has enough common sense to know that marriage cannot be redefined; that a child comes from both a mother and a father; that marriage is the building block of society," the group said. "It is not discriminatory to reserve marriage for one man and one woman."
As things stand now, same-sex couples face a patchwork of conflicting laws and practices that vary from state to state.
Six states allow same-sex marriage; nine more have civil unions or domestic partnerships that extend marriage-like rights to gays and lesbians.
The federal government, however, doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, nor do the vast majority of states. Even with an out-of-state marriage license, gay and lesbian couples in those states face uncertainty, extra legal bills and rebuffs that straight couples avoid. Complications can arise with adoptions, inheritances and survivor benefits.
If legally married in their own state, same-sex couples still must file separate federal tax forms, with separate deductions, even when they're raising children together and jointly owning property.
This election won't get rid of that patchwork, but it could have a major impact given that four states have gay-marriage measures on their ballots.
In Minnesota, the vote is whether to put a ban on 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. If that streak is broken in the four states that are addressing it in November, it could provide momentum for supporters, and perhaps even influence the Supreme Court if — as expected — it takes up cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.
People love to talk about the weather, especially when it's strange like the mercifully ended summer of 2012. This year the nation's weather has been hotter and more extreme than ever, federal records show. Yet there are two people who aren't talking about it, and they both happen to be running for president.
Where they stand:
In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed a bill that would have capped power plant carbon dioxide emissions and allowed trading of credits for the right to emit greenhouse gases, but the measure died in Congress. An international treaty effort failed. Obama since has taken a different approach, treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the law. He doubled auto fuel economy standards, which will increase the cost of cars but save drivers money at the pump. He's put billions of stimulus dollars into cleaner energy.
Mitt Romney's view of climate change has varied. In his book "No Apology," he wrote, "I believe that climate change is occurring" and "human activity is a contributing factor." But on the campaign trail last year he said, "We don't know what's causing climate change on this planet." He has criticized Obama's treatment of coal power plants and opposes treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and the capping of carbon dioxide emissions, but favors spending money on clean technology. Romney says some actions to curb emissions could hurt an already struggling economy.
Why it matters:
It's worsening. In the U.S., July was the hottest month ever recorded and this year is on track to be the nation's warmest. Climate scientists say it's a combination of natural drought and man-made global warming. Each decade since the 1970s has been nearly one-third of a degree warmer than the previous one.
Sea levels are rising while Arctic sea ice was at a record low in September. U.S. public health officials are partially blaming unusually hot and dry weather for an outbreak of the deadly West Nile virus that is on pace to be the worst ever. Scientists blame global warming for more frequent weather disasters, with the World Health Organization saying: "Climatic changes already are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually." Others put the toll lower.
Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels are trapping more of the sun's heat on Earth. One study showed that 97 percent of the scientists who publish about climate in peer-reviewed journals say global warming is man-made. So do just about every major science society and institution that has weighed in.
But limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal and oil would be costly, with billions of dollars in changes to the U.S. economy only a starting point. Similarly the price of not doing anything is extraordinarily high because of costly and deadly extreme weather. People will pay either way in taxes, energy prices, insurance premiums, disaster relief, food prices, water bills and changes to our environment that are hard to put a price tag on, says MIT economist Henry Jacoby.
A NASA study this year found the most extreme type of weather, which statistically should happen on less than 0.3 percent of the Earth at any given time, is now more common. Until recently, the most extreme year was in 1941 when extremes covered 2.7 percent of the globe. From 2006 to 2011 about 10 percent of the globe had that extreme weather, with a peak of 20 percent, the study said. That was before this year's record extremes started.
The issue of man-made global warming is "totally missing" from the campaign between Obama and Romney, says Jacoby. It should be talked about, he says, because "we're running a serious risk of passing a much-damaged planet to our descendants."
Frightening episodes of gun violence have been splayed across front pages with alarming frequency this campaign season: the deadly Milwaukee spa shootings, the movie theater killings in Colorado, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin, the gun battle outside the Empire State Building, and more. Guns are used in two-thirds of homicides, according to the FBI. But the murder rate is less than half what it was two decades ago.
Where they stand:
Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney has had much to say about guns during the campaign, except when prodded by high-profile events such as the Colorado shootings. Obama hasn't pushed gun control measures as president, and Romney says he doesn't think the nation needs new gun laws. Both style themselves as defenders of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Obama has signed laws letting people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak trains. He's voiced support for a renewed ban on assault-type weapons but hasn't tried to get that done. He blames Congress for opposing such measures.
Romney suggested after the Colorado shootings that he favors tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. He said he doubts whether new laws would help. The key, he said, is to identify deranged or distressed people and then "keep them from carrying out terrible acts." It's a big shift in tone from his days as Massachusetts governor, when he vowed to protect the state's "tough gun laws" and signed a ban on assault weapons.
Why it matters:
Don't expect gun control to be high on the presidential agenda no matter who wins in November. Although Obama is more open to gun ownership restrictions than Romney, neither seems inclined to push it. That's not to say it makes no difference who gets elected when it comes to gun control. Supreme Court appointments could make a big difference.
But gun control has faded as a political issue. Crime just isn't the public concern it was years ago. And it's getting harder to make the argument that stricter gun laws are needed when violent crime has fallen by 65 percent since 1993.
Although high-profile shootings inevitably stir up talk about tighter gun controls, over time the public has shifted in favor of the right to own guns and away from increased limitations on gun ownership.
In 1990, 78 percent of Americans said laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, and 19 percent said they should remain the same or be loosened, according to a Gallup poll. By the fall of 2004, support for tougher laws had dropped to 54 percent. Last year, 43 percent said they should be stricter, and 55 percent said they should stay the same or be made more lenient.
Still, odds are good that the next president will have a chance to fill at least one Supreme Court seat, and the current court is narrowly divided on gun-control questions. In a 5-4 vote two years ago, for example, the court held that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, expanding the conservative court's embrace of gun rights. The court left unresolved questions about what kinds of gun-control laws fit comfortably with the Second Amendment.
An Obama appointee could be expected to be friendlier to gun controls than would a Romney nominee.
Obama could decide to push for an assault weapons ban in a second term, when he wouldn't have to worry about re-election repercussions. But it still would be unlikely to advance through a House that is expected to remain firmly in Republican hands.
America’s health care system is unsustainable. It’s not one problem, but three combined: high cost, uneven quality and millions uninsured. Major changes will keep coming. Every family will be affected.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama’s health care law will extend coverage to 30 million uninsured and keep the basic design of Medicare and Medicaid the same. It’s not clear how well his approach will control costs for taxpayers, families and businesses. Mitt Romney would repeal Obama’s health care overhaul; what parts he’d replace have yet to be spelled out. Romney would revamp Medicare, nudging future retirees toward private insurance plans, and he would turn Medicaid over to the states.
Why it matters:
America has world-class hospitals and doctors, and cutting-edge research labs. But we spend far more than any other advanced country, we’re not much healthier, and still leave millions uninsured. In an aging society, we have no reliable system for long-term care. Costs keep growing faster than the economy, unsustainable for federal and state governments, employers of every size, and average folks as well. The 2012 election offers a choice between two political leaders who’d take the nation on very different paths.If health care costs are already straining your budget, if you are having problems getting medical attention you need, or if you are concerned that one day you might find yourself in either predicament, choices matter. But whatever your personal health or insurance situation, deeper national debt affects the economy and in some way your own standard of living, or at least that of the next generation. If the government has to spend more on health care, that comes at the expense of more debt, cuts in something else or higher taxes.Obama’s health care law would grow the government’s presence in medical care, but employers and individuals would continue to play a major part. Many uninsured middle-class people will get financial help to buy private insurance in new competitive markets. Low-income people will be covered through expanded Medicaid. Insurance companies won’t be able to turn the sick away, and most Americans will be required to have coverage. The law puts the onus for controlling costs on the hospital industry, the medical profession, drug companies and other service providers. Obama wants to shift Medicare away from paying for sheer numbers of tests and procedures to a system that rewards quality care. He would also keep a strong federal hand in the Medicaid program for low-income and disabled people.The risk of expanding government-subsidized coverage: Health costs could take off, eating up an ever-increasing share of the economy, and eventually destabilizing the system. The Republican answer is to favor private insurance over government programs, and cost control through market competition, not price setting by federal officials. They oppose mandates on businesses and individuals. They want to borrow a page from 401(k) pension plans and shift people away from open-ended medical benefits, instead providing a fixed amount for basic health insurance. If you’ve got a pre-existing medical condition, you could join a high-risk insurance pool. Republicans would also limit medical malpractice awards, which researchers say drive up health care costs, and they would put more restrictions on abortion.Romney’s approach would rein in the growth of federal health care costs, helping to bring down the budget deficit. The risk: more people uninsured, possible erosion of coverage for low-income people and potential cost shifts.
Illegal immigration is a decades-old problem. With an estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants living, and in many cases working, in the U.S. the question remains: What do we do with them? And how do we stop more people from coming? Lax enforcement potentially leads to more illegal immigrants competing with U.S. citizens for jobs and some social services, without necessarily paying income taxes. But a too-tight policy could mean farmers and others in industries that rely on the cheaper labor of illegal immigrants are left begging for workers, passing higher costs on to consumers or going out of business altogether.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has pushed for the DREAM Act, a path to citizenship for many young illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Efforts to pass the bill have repeatedly failed, most notably in 2010 when it stalled in a Democratic-led Senate after failing to win the 60 votes it needed to proceed to a full vote. Five Democrats voted against the measure. In June, Obama announced a plan to delay deportations for many illegal immigrants who would have benefited from the DREAM Act for up to two years and let them get work permits.Mitt Romney has said that as president he would veto the DREAM Act should it ever cross his desk. He told The Denver Post that he would honor work permits for those immigrants who benefit from Obama’s new policy and promised to put a comprehensive immigration plan into place before those permits expire. He favors completing a towering steel fence along the Mexican border, in addition to the 650 miles already constructed, and opposes letting illegal immigrant students pay in-state tuition at state universities.
Why it matters:
Illegal immigration has slowed in recent years, with the Border Patrol recently recording the fewest arrests in almost 40 years. But many people worry that the Mexican border, the most popular crossing point for newly arriving illegal immigrants, still isn’t secure more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.In the last several years, the government has spent billions building a fence, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and adding a slew of high-tech gadgets to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. The numbers tell a compelling story: In the last budget year, the Border Patrol arrested about 327,000 people at the Mexican border. In 2006, agents made more than 1 million such arrests.Obama’s administration also deported a record number of people last year, nearly 400,000. The government has been shifting its focus to finding and deporting criminal immigrants and those who otherwise pose a threat to security.There’s room for debate about what has led to the steep drop in arrests; it’s quite clear the struggling economy has made it less attractive to enter the U.S. Still, Republicans insist any illegal crossings are too many. And there’s broad agreement that the border should be more secure.As for illegal immigrants already in the country, there’s no easy answer about what to do.In 1986, under President Ronald Reagan, Congress approved an amnesty that granted millions of immigrants legal status while also changing the law to make it illegal to hire illegal immigrants. Hiring has continued in many sectors, notably farming. And some lawmakers worry that agriculture would sink if there were an aggressive effort to verify that all farmworkers could legally work in the U.S. Various overhauls of immigration policy have been proposed since the early 2000s. But the debate often boils down to Republicans wanting the border secure before anything else, and Democrats pushing for that security and for a path to legalization at once. The result has been a legislative stalemate.
The income gap between the rich and everyone else is large and getting larger, while middle-class incomes stagnate. That’s raised concerns that the nation’s middle class isn’t sharing in economic growth as it has in the past. And it sparked the Wall Street protests that spread to other cities in the country.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama would raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year, plus set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for those who earn $1 million or more. He also wants to spend more on education, “a gateway to the middle class.”Republican Mitt Romney blames Obama’s economic policies for failing to create enough jobs so that middle- and lower-income Americans can earn more. He wants to cut taxes more broadly and says that will generate enough growth to raise incomes for all Americans.
Why it matters:
Income inequality has risen for three decades and worsened since the recession ended. A report in mid-September from the Census Bureau found that the highest-earning 20 percent of households earned 51.1 percent of all income last year. That was the biggest share on records dating to 1967. The share earned by households in the middle 20 percent fell to 14.3 percent, a record low. Other studies have pointed to huge gains among the top 1 percent, fueling protests by Occupy Wall Street. Last fall, the Congressional Budget Office found that incomes for the richest 1 percent soared 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. For the middle 60 percent of Americans, average incomes grew just under 40 percent. Two academics, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, have used IRS data to construct longer-run assessments of income inequality. They found that in 2007 the richest 1 percent earned 23.5 percent of income. That was the biggest share since 1928, just before the Great Depression. Some economists argue that these figures overstate inequality. They point out that Saez and Piketty exclude income from Social Security and other government benefits from their calculations. Most studies also don’t count the value of health insurance and other employer benefits, which have risen sharply in recent decades.But the CBO’s study does include the impact of taxes and government benefits. Few economists dispute that income inequality has worsened in the past three decades. Poverty has deepened. Fifteen percent of Americans were below the poverty line in 2011, the Census Bureau says, slightly lower than the 15.1 percent in 2010. That was the first drop after four straight years of increases.But the recession has pushed up the poverty rate sharply since it stood at 11.3 percent in 2000. About 46.2 million people were poor last year, 46 percent more than in 2000.Government programs such as unemployment benefits and Social Security have lifted millions of Americans above the poverty line. That raises the stakes surrounding future proposals to limit such benefits.Some economists argue that income inequality contributed to the financial crisis. As middle-class incomes stagnated in the 2000s, Americans borrowed to fuel more consumption and buy larger homes. That caused an explosion in household debt that couldn’t be sustained when the housing bubble burst. At stake, says Obama, is “the basic bargain at the heart of America’s story, the promise that hard work will pay off.” Romney says Obama’s policies have made the middle class poorer. He says he will remove barriers to opportunity, such as excessive regulation of small business, so that more Americans can succeed. “We’re not the party of the rich,” he said. “We’re the party of the people who want to get rich.”
From bridges to broadband, America's infrastructure is supposed to be speeding along commerce, delivering us to work and piping energy and water into our homes and businesses. But just repairing all the breakdowns and potholes would cost tens of billions more than we're currently spending each year. Experts warn the resulting infrastructure and innovation deficit is jeopardizing our global economic competitiveness. Traditionally nonpartisan territory, spending for transportation and other megaprojects is now routinely caught up in politics, with Democrats and Republicans divided over how to pay for public works and which ones.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has favored stimulus-style infrastructure spending plans, talking up highway, bridge and rail repairs as job creators, and pushed for innovations like high-speed rail and a national infrastructure bank to finance projects with the help of private capital. But Republican opposition to increased spending and taxes has blunted many such plans.
Mitt Romney favors less involvement by the federal government in infrastructure, preferring to let states lead the way. Romney shuns the idea that public-works spending is a good way to jumpstart the economy, saying decisions on worthy projects should be based on need and potential returns. Romney also wants to privatize Amtrak by ending federal subsidies for the money-losing passenger rail system. He's OK with borrowing to pay for megaprojects if there's a revenue stream to pay the money back, like tolls or port fees.
Why it matters:
Much of America's infrastructure, including its interstate highway system, is more than half a century old and in need of serious work to keep pace with a rising population. Highway, rail and airport bottlenecks slow the movement of goods and commuters, costing billions in wasted time and fuel and even measurably slowing the economy.
The World Economic Forum put the U.S. 24th last year in the quality of its infrastructure, down from fifth in 2002. The rest of the developed world sets aside on average about 53 percent more of its gross domestic product on transportation infrastructure than the U.S. does, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The dilemma facing any president is how to maintain critical public works at a time of fiscal austerity and to exert enough leadership to get plans through a divided Congress. That challenge was apparent in the partisan wrangling earlier this year over a long-term bill to reauthorize federal transportation spending, which finally passed after nine temporary extensions.
Both parties highlight the need for infrastructure investment, but neither side has been willing to take the politically painful step of proposing an increase in the gasoline tax or some other way to pay for it. The main source of federal transportation aid to the states, the Highway Trust Fund, is going broke. The gas tax that feeds it hasn't been raised since 1993 and does not keep pace with inflation.
Trying to work around those logjams, cash-strapped states and cities are experimenting with creative alternatives, including public-private partnerships with financial institutions that are being invited to put up the initial cash in exchange for a slice of revenue from tolls, other user fees and the like. The idea has support from both Democrats and Republicans but is most heavily promoted by conservatives.
Proponents say such deals get projects off the drawing table faster than traditional routes. Skeptics warn the model could end up turning control of critical public works projects to entities more concerned with profit than serving the public. A focus on projects that generate the most revenue could also neglect rural areas and poor inner-city neighborhoods.
With the Iraq war over and Afghanistan winding down, Iran is the most likely place for a new U.S. military conflict. Despite unprecedented global penalties, Iran’s nuclear program is advancing. The United States and other Western nations fear the Islamic republic is determined to develop nuclear weapons and fundamentally reshape the balance of power in the Middle East, while posing a grave threat to Israel. Iran insists its program is solely designed for peaceful energy and medical research purposes.
Where they stand:
Since taking office, President Barack Obama has adopted a two-pronged Iran policy while stating unequivocally that he will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. His administration has imposed crippling oil and financial penalties to press Iran into halting its uranium enrichment activity. At the same time, he’s offered the prospect of closer ties with the rest of the world if the Shiite government ends enrichment. Diplomacy hasn’t curbed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but Obama insists military action should only be a last resort. He has pressed Israel to allow more time for sanctions and negotiations, putting him at odds with a close U.S. ally that has been the most aggressive advocate of a military response.Mitt Romney accuses Obama of being weak on Iran. He says the U.S. needs to present a credible threat of military action and should work with insurgents to bring down Iran’s government, not coax it into better behavior through engagement. His aides have spoken of the need to prevent Iran from even acquiring the capability to develop nuclear weapons, a criterion that could lower the bar for a military response. Romney’s Iran policy dovetails with his argument that he’d be a sturdier ally of Israel. He says he’d support the Jewish state if it decides to attack Iran.
Why it matters: Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran would destabilize the Middle East and potentially spark a new nuclear race. Israel would fear for its very existence. Iran’s Sunni rivals Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt might seek their own nuclear deterrents. Iraq and Lebanon would risk falling further under Iran’s sway. The risk of anti-U.S. militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah acquiring nuclear weapons would be a danger Washington couldn’t accept.Timing counts. Israel fears its window for action is narrowing as Iran shifts more operations underground. At some point, only the U.S. would have the technological capacity to reach Iran’s deeply buried nuclear facilities.Attacking Iran is no light matter, however. That is why neither candidate is clearly calling for military action. Tehran can retaliate by disrupting global fuel supplies from the Persian Gulf, through which about one-fifth of the world’s oil flows. It can hit U.S. allies in the Gulf or support proxies such as Hezbollah in acts of terrorism. It can draw the United States into a major war at a time of staggering U.S. debt and continued economic struggles.It’s unclear what a war would ultimately accomplish.
As concern intensifies over Iran’s nuclear program and the rise of Islamist governments in the Middle East, America’s top ally in the region, Israel, has become increasingly wary. Israel’s security has been a U.S. foreign policy priority of both Democratic and Republican administrations since the Jewish state was created in 1948. Although small in size and population, Israel has significant influence in Washington, and presidents of both parties have pledged their commitment to its defense. And it’s always a potential flashpoint in a region that the U.S. depends on for oil.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has continued the U.S. tradition of strong support for Israel. Both American and Israeli officials say bilateral security cooperation is as strong as it has ever been. However, the Obama administration has become embroiled in several very public spats with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stirring criticism that Obama is not fully backing Israel.Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney has been sharply critical of Obama’s policy on Israel. Romney is friendly with Netanyahu, visited Israel in July and has vowed unreserved U.S. support for Israel.
Why it matters:
America has historically supported Israel as a bulwark of stability and democracy in the world’s most volatile region and shares culture and values with the Jewish state. Israel has also been the United States’ most consistent ally in the Middle East. Because many politically active American Jews and evangelicals rank Israel at or near the top of issues likely to influence their vote, Israel and its security are usually major election-year topics.Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and the last three American presidents have stepped up pressure on Iran — which has threatened to wipe Israel off the map — to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful.An Israeli attack on Iran, backed by the United States or not, could lead to retaliation from Iran and its proxies against Israel and perhaps Western interests. It could also set events in motion spiking oil prices. An Iranian attack on Israel would almost certainly draw the United States into a bloody regional conflict.Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have all in turn tried to broker a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which some believe would remove a main motivating factor for Islamist extremists who have targeted the U.S. and its interests abroad with terrorist attacks.Romney, who has said he doesn’t think Palestinians truly want peace, has taken issue with Obama’s strategy in the peace process. He has criticized the administration for demanding that Israel freeze construction of Jewish housing on land that the Palestinians claim as part of their eventual state. After initially rejecting such a step, Netanyahu announced a temporary freeze intended to bring the Palestinians back to the table. But the talks quickly broke down amid complaints the Palestinians weren’t serious about peace and Obama was putting too much pressure on Israel.
A unionized job once meant a secure path to a middle-class life. Labor unions are still big political players, but they have seen a steady decline in membership and clout since their heyday in the 1950s.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has signed a series of executive orders that encourage the use of union labor in federal construction projects, ease union financial reporting requirements and more. He has also appointed labor-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board, which has approved new rules to help union organizers and has more strictly enforced laws against anti-union misconduct.
Republican Mitt Romney says he will reverse all of Obama's executive orders that help unions, seek to prohibit unions from using automatic dues deductions for politics and strive for national right-to-work legislation that prohibits unions from collecting dues from nonmembers.
Why it matters:
Unions long have been viewed as a way for workers to gain job protections, boost wages and achieve benefits. Many business leaders see unions as limiting employer flexibility and sapping profits.
About 14.8 million Americans are members of labor unions. The number has been declining for decades as domestic manufacturing jobs go overseas and businesses take a tougher approach in opposing union organizers.
Organized labor now makes up just 11.8 percent of the work force — down from about a third of all workers in the 1950s. Union leaders have looked to the White House and Congress for help in organizing new members and increasing their influence in the workplace.
But favorable union organizing rules approved by Obama's appointees at the National Labor Relations Board have been tied up in the courts. And an effort to get Congress to pass card-check legislation, which would let unions organize new members simply by signing cards instead of holding elections, went nowhere during Obama's first term.
Obama didn't do much to push the card-check law, which faced vigorous business opposition, but he did please unions with his federal bailout of the auto industry and passage of a huge stimulus package — both credited with saving thousands of union jobs. Romney opposed both moves.
Last year, the labor board's general counsel outraged business groups when he filed a lawsuit against Boeing Co., saying the company was punishing union members in Washington state by opening a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina. While both sides ultimately settled the dispute, Romney says he wants to amend labor laws to prevent the board from interfering with business investment decisions.
In the public sector, where unions had seen some of their steadiest growth in recent years, Republican governors in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio have pushed laws seeking to curb collective bargaining rights for state workers. They argue that such limits are necessary to roll back generous pension and benefit packages that cash-strapped governments no longer can afford.
Romney has praised efforts to limit collective bargaining rights for public workers, while Obama has denounced them. In fact, the Obama administration for the first time granted limited union rights to more than 40,000 federal workers who screen passengers at the nation's airports.
Despite massive public protests against measures limiting union rights and some court successes by organized labor, polls find unions less popular than in past decades. They were viewed favorably by 52 percent of Gallup respondents in August.
Even Democratic leaders in New York, California and other states have sought to limit pensions for state employees and make union members contribute a greater share of health benefits.
Missile technology is proliferating. It remains unclear how quickly foes such as Iran and North Korea could develop a capability to strike the United States with missiles, but the U.S. says Iran is already capable of hitting Europe. The United States is spending nearly $10 billion a year on missile defense when military budgets are stretched. But the programs have yet to prove that they can reliably knock long-range missiles out of the sky and protect the U.S. from emerging threats.
Where they stand:
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama replaced a George W. Bush-era plan for missile defense in Europe that had roiled relations with Russia. Obama says his four-stage plan would protect Europe and the United States as foes develop more sophisticated missiles. The announcement initially eased tensions with Moscow, which considered the previous plan a threat to its nuclear might. Obama has proposed cutting missile defense spending in 2013 by about 7 percent, to $9.7 billion.
Republican rival Mitt Romney would reverse Obama's proposed cuts to the program. He wants to maintain Obama's plans in Europe — so long as they work. He argues that part of Obama's plan is based on theoretical technology and was designed as much to appease Russia as to address threats from Iran. Romney has called Russia the top geopolitical foe of the United States.
Why it matters:
Americans have long taken comfort in the distance from tension in Asia and Europe provided by two wide oceans. Intercontinental ballistic missile technology undermines that security by offering foes the ability to strike quickly from great distance with weapons of mass destruction.
Missile defense has been contentious since Ronald Reagan proposed the idea of making ICBMs obsolete in a nationally televised address in 1983. The initiative was dubbed "Star Wars." Critics say that despite about $150 billion spent since then, the U.S. is far from achieving Reagan's goal. Even supporters claim only a limited capability against long-range missiles. Recent government-commissioned reports by the National Academy of Sciences and other panels have highlighted critical problems with the effectiveness and management of the programs.
Despite those questions, both political parties largely support current missile defense programs. Romney has not proposed any major deviations from Obama's path, but could steer policy in Europe back to a more confrontational approach with Russia.
The United States maintains that missile defenses are aimed at countering attacks from rogue regimes and would be impotent against the arsenals of major nuclear powers such as Russia and China. But Moscow says even a limited capability against its ICBMs could destabilize the balance that deters the United States and Russia from contemplating nuclear confrontation. China has also increasingly raised objections to U.S. and Japanese missile defense assets in Asia.
Although Moscow initially welcomed Obama's shift in missile defense policy, Russian officials have since objected to the latter phases of his four-stage plan. A faster interceptor, still in development, is to be deployed in 2020, theoretically capable of shooting down ICBMs that can reach the U.S. Russians also worry about an increased U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin said Romney's identification of Russia as a top foe justifies his concern about U.S. missile defense.
Republicans wonder if the U.S. will roll back the latter stages of the plan. They cite Obama's comment in March to Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's president, when Obama was unaware he was speaking on an open microphone. Obama told Medvedev he would have more flexibility on the issue after November's election.
U.S. multinational companies have taken advantage of lower trade barriers over the past 15 years to shift jobs and production to lower-wage countries, a practice generally known as outsourcing. That's cut costs for consumers and helped those companies grow, which can support employment in the United States. Still, it has also raised fears that the United States is permanently losing the kind of high-paying manufacturing jobs needed to support a healthy middle class.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama has proposed giving tax breaks to U.S. manufacturers that produce domestically or bring back jobs from overseas. He also wants U.S. companies to pay taxes on more of their overseas earnings. Currently, U.S. corporations don't pay U.S. taxes on overseas profits unless they bring that cash back to the United States. Obama argues that this encourages outsourcing. Many Republicans say his proposal would raise taxes on U.S. companies and encourage them to move their headquarters overseas, so they would no longer be considered U.S. corporations.
Mitt Romney says he wants to make the United States a more attractive place to do business by cutting corporate taxes and reducing regulations. Romney also says he will discourage companies from moving operations to China by pushing that country to let its currency rise in value. That would make its exports more expensive.
Why it matters:
With unemployment painfully high, it's not surprising that fears over outsourcing, which first surfaced in the mid-2000s, have returned. Unemployment topped 8 percent for 43 months from February 2009 through August 2012, the longest stretch since the Great Depression. It dipped to 7.8 percent in September.
Also fueling fears is the decision by Apple and other high-tech companies to manufacture many of their goods in China. That suggests it isn't just low-skilled jobs in industries such as textiles that are being lost.
According to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder told Obama in 2010 that there weren't enough engineers in the U.S. to support its vast manufacturing operations. Jobs also argued that government regulation made it harder to set up factories in the U.S.
One new twist is that U.S. manufacturers are more competitive after the recession and fewer jobs are being shifted overseas. Wages in China are rising and its currency has increased in value. U.S. factory workers have accepted pay cuts and are more productive. And energy has become cheaper for U.S.-based companies thanks to gains in oil and natural gas production.
All those factors have eroded China's cost advantages and perhaps slowed the outsourcing trend. Michael Dolega of TD Economics estimates that the U.S. has gained about 55,000 manufacturing jobs in the past year that in the past would have been shipped overseas.
Even so, economists warn that the two candidates are overstating the potential for a manufacturing renaissance. Jeffrey Bergstrand, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, calls it "factory nostalgia."
The United States lost roughly 6 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010. Since then, it has regained about a half-million of those jobs, or less than 10 percent of the losses. Dolega estimates that under a best-case scenario, the U.S. could add another 1 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade.
"There are some jobs that are not going to come back," Obama acknowledges. "I want high wage, high skill jobs. That's why we have to emphasize manufacturing." Says Romney: "We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level."
The nation's complexion is rapidly changing. A more racially and ethnically diverse population is rising so that, perhaps within three decades, whites will no longer be the majority. That means shifts in political power, the risk of intensified racial tensions and also the opportunity to forge a multiracial society unlike anything in America's past.
Where they stand:
Nearly half a century after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, America elected its first black president in 2008. President Barack Obama says that milestone alone changed attitudes on race, yet "I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period." He's trod carefully on matters of race, in some minds too carefully, in favor of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats philosophy.
Mitt Romney appears to favor the melting-pot ideal more than the mosaic, envisioning a future in which Americans put aside cultural differences grounded in race and ethnicity to stand as one people. A gulf remains, though, between minorities and the Republican Party as blacks and Latinos in particular continue to see their interests better represented by Democrats. Hispanic Republicans are making striking inroads in state politics; nationally, it's a different story. GOP immigration policy alone has been taken as a sign of hostility.
Why it matters:
The U.S. hit a historic benchmark when the census announced in May that a majority of children younger than 1 — 50.4 percent — were minorities. The fast growth in minority populations is due largely to increases in Latino births and high immigration. Hispanics are the most populous minority group, numbering 52 million last year (and representing close to 17 percent of the population). The census put the black population at 43.9 million and Asians the third largest minority group at 18.2 million.
Meanwhile, the white population in the 100 largest metro areas dropped to 57 percent from 71 percent over the last 20 years, according to the Brookings Institution. Demographers predict minorities might become the majority by 2042, although slowdowns in growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations could delay that. Minorities now make up more than 36 percent of the U.S. population.
The shift means a change in the needs of the overall U.S. population and in backgrounds.
Unemployment is higher among blacks and Latinos, as is the lack of health insurance. Latino children have higher rates of poverty. More black men are in America's prisons; many Latinos are grappling with deportation of family members.
The economic and housing crises hit black and Latino communities harder.
U.S. minority populations are younger, which means they will be a big share of the workforce for years to come and a growing force at the ballot box.
Obama's election in 2008 underscored the nation's racial gulf in politics even as it made history. He was elected with 96 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote and about 43 percent of the white vote.
Minorities increasingly will influence elections if their turnout keeps rising and the pool of voters keeps growing. It's certain minorities will want to see more people in office who look like them, understand their needs and in some cases speak their language. Communities are grappling with new populations and cultures in places far removed from America's usual centers of multiethnic life.
The next president, black or white, has no choice but to keep matters of race and equality on his agenda.
Unless Congress acts, the trust funds that support Social Security will run out of money in 2033, according to the trustees who oversee the retirement and disability program. At that point, Social Security would collect only enough tax revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits. That benefit cut wouldn't sit well with the millions of older Americans who rely on Social Security for most of their income.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama hasn't laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. He's called for bipartisan talks on strengthening the program but he didn't embrace the plan produced by a bipartisan deficit reduction panel he created in 2010.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney proposes a gradual increase in the retirement age to account for growing life expectancy. For future generations, Romney would slow the growth of benefits "for those with higher incomes."
Why it matters:
For millions of retired and disabled workers, Social Security is pretty much all they have to live on, even though monthly benefits are barely enough to keep them out of poverty. Monthly payments average $1,237 for retired workers and $1,111 for disabled workers. Most older Americans rely on Social Security for a majority of their income; many rely on it for 90 percent or more, according to the Social Security Administration.
Social Security is already the largest federal program and it's getting bigger as millions of baby boomers reach retirement. More than 56 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security benefits. That number that will grow to 91 million by 2035, according to congressional estimates.
Social Security could handle the growing number of beneficiaries if there were more workers paying payroll taxes. But most baby boomers didn't have as many children as their parents did, leaving relatively fewer workers to pay into the system.
In 1960, there were 4.9 workers for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary, and that ratio will drop to 1.9 workers by 2035.
Nevertheless, Social Security is ripe for congressional action in the next year or two, if lawmakers get serious about addressing the nation's long-term financial problems. Why? Because Social Security is fixable.
Despite the program's long-term problems, Social Security could be preserved for generations to come with modest but politically difficult changes to benefits or taxes, or a combination of both.
Some options could affect people quickly, such as increasing payroll taxes or reducing annual cost-of-living adjustments for those who already get benefits. Others options, such as gradually raising the retirement age, wouldn't be felt for years but would affect millions of younger workers.
Fixing Social Security won't be easy. All the options carry political risks because they have the potential to affect nearly every U.S. family while angering powerful interest groups. Liberal advocates and some Democrats oppose all benefit cuts; conservative activists and some Republicans say tax increases are out of the question.
But Social Security is easier to fix than Medicare or Medicaid, the other two big government benefit programs. Unlike Medicare and Medicaid, policymakers don't have to figure out how to tame the rising costs of health care to fix Social Security.
Social Security's problems seem far off. After all, the program has enough money to pay full benefits for 20 more years. But the program's financial problems get harder to fix with each passing year. The sooner Congress acts, the more subtle the changes can be because they can be phased in slowly.
With four justices in their 70s, odds are good that whoever is elected in November will have a chance to fill at least one Supreme Court seat. The next justice could dramatically alter the direction of a court closely divided between conservatives and liberals. One new face on the bench could mean a sea change in how millions get health care, shape the rights of gay Americans and much more.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama already has put his stamp on the high court by appointing liberal-leaning Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, 50-somethings who could easily serve a quarter-century or more. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has promised to name justices in the mode of the court’s conservatives.
Why it matters:
Since the New Deal, Supreme Court decisions have made huge everyday differences in American lives, from seminal decisions to uphold Social Security, minimum wage laws and other Depression-era reforms to ringing endorsements of equal rights. And anything is possible with five votes, a bare majority of the nine-justice court. Decisions on many of the hot-button issues in recent years have been by 5-4 votes. These include upholding Obama’s health care overhaul, favoring gun rights, limiting abortion, striking down campaign finance laws, allowing consideration of race in higher education and erecting barriers to class-action lawsuits.Supreme Court vacancies always are a big deal. But the stakes become enormous when the president has a chance to put a like-minded justice on the court to take the place of an ideological opponent. Such a switch can change the outcome of some of the court’s most important cases. The most recent example of what the change in a single seat can mean was President George W. Bush’s selection of Samuel Alito to take the place of Sandra Day O’Connor. Both justices were appointed by Republicans, but Alito is far more conservative than O’Connor on such key issues as abortion, affirmative action and campaign finance. As things stand now, Anthony Kennedy, 76, is the only justice who leans conservative but sometimes sides with the liberals on an otherwise evenly divided court. The others older than 70 are the liberal-leaning Stephen Breyer (74) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (79), and the conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia (76). No one has indicated any intention to retire soon, although Obama’s re-election could tempt Breyer and Ginsburg to reconsider. Romney’s election could prompt Kennedy and Scalia to change their plans since justices, at least recently, tend to retire when their replacement is likely to be of similar ideology. But what might happen if the next president had an unexpected opportunity to change the court’s direction?Obama has voiced his disagreement with the Citizens United decision in 2010 that has contributed to ever-freer campaign spending. Of his two appointees, Sotomayor was on the losing side of the Citizens United case while Kagan argued the case for the administration in her previous job. On health care, both justices voted to uphold the Obama’s health care law.Romney already has called on the court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that first established a woman’s right to an abortion. Romney has said he would appoint justices like Alito, Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas. He described them as men who follow the text of the Constitution, not their “personal policy preferences.”But the health care case is a reminder that justices who generally vote a certain way do not always vote in a predictable fashion. Roberts, after all, was the decisive — and lone conservative — vote to uphold health care law.
Syria's conflict is the most violent to emerge from last year's Arab Spring. The protests started peacefully but prompted a brutal crackdown by President Bashar Assad's government. The fighting has escalated into a civil war that has killed more than 33,000 people in the last 20 months, according to activists. Despite intervening in Libya, the United States has steered clear of taking military action or arming Syria's rebels.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down more than a year ago and has sought consensus for a diplomatic power-transfer plan. He has been stymied by Russia and China, which have blocked efforts at the United Nations to end the Assad government. He has been unable to prevent a worsening civil war between Assad's forces and the rebels but he remains opposed to using U.S. air power to prevent Syrian jets from flying and is against directly providing weapons to the opposition. His administration says such plans would further militarize Syria. Instead, it hopes better coordination among the opposition will help unify the country against Assad.
Romney has demanded "more assertive" tactics to end the Assad government, accusing Obama of a "lack of leadership." The Republican challenger has been short on specifics. He says the U.S. should cooperate with partners to arm Syria's rebels. That stops short of calling for direct U.S. weapons deliveries and is a policy the Obama administration has adopted in limited fashion for several months. Romney also has spoken of possibly sending American troops into Syria if weapons of mass destruction are unprotected — going slightly further than Obama, who calls WMD his "red line" in the conflict. In the final presidential debate, Romney ruled out U.S. military involvement for now.
Why it matters:
The Arab world's efforts to achieve stable democracies could hinge on Syria. Demonstrators ended dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, a U.S.-led mission helped defeat Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and a transition deal brought change to Yemen. But the four-decade-long Assad government has dug in. It is accused of torture and mass killings. And if it succeeds in keeping power, reform-wary leaders across the region could take it as a lesson that they can attack their own citizens and get away with it.
Syria's close alliance with Iran is important. Assad has facilitated Iran's assistance to militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, destabilizing Lebanon while threatening Israel's security and American interests in the Middle East. The U.S. accuses Iran of managing Syria's repression to prop up its faltering ally. With Washington and Tehran competing for influence in the Arab world, change toward a more U.S.-friendly government in Syria would be a major strategic victory. Up to now, the only governments ousted in the Arab Spring were either U.S. allies or counterterrorism partners.
For Obama, Assad's perseverance also poses a credibility problem. The president has demanded that Assad leave but has ruled out several elements of American power to make that happen. He has limited the repercussions on Assad mainly to tighter U.S. sanctions and harsher rhetoric. For Romney, however, Syria offers no easy solution. The presence of al-Qaida-linked fighters and other extremists in the opposition makes members of both parties uneasy about offering greater U.S. aid. And no one wants greater instability on Israel's up-to-now secure northeastern border.
Just about every U.S. taxpayer is facing a significant tax increase next year, unless Congress and the White House can agree on a plan to extend a huge collection of tax cuts that expires at the end of the year. Beyond that, there's much debate over how to overhaul the tax code to make it simpler, with lower rates balanced with fewer deductions. Can homeowners hang onto their juicy mortgage interest deduction? If it's taken away, can lawmakers hang onto their jobs?
Where they stand:
President Barack 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. Those making more would see their taxes go up, though they would still pay less than when Bill Clinton was president. Obama also wants a new rule requiring people who make more than $1 million a year to pay at least 30 percent of their income in federal taxes.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts and enact some new ones. Romney proposes dropping all income tax rates by 20 percent, reducing the top tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent. The bottom rate would go from 10 percent to 8 percent. Romney says he would pay for the rate cuts by eliminating or reducing tax credits, deductions and exemptions, but won't say which ones would go.
Why it matters:
If Congress can't agree on a plan to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, income tax rates would go up for people at every income level. Estate taxes and investment taxes would increase and the alternative minimum tax would hit millions of middle-income people. A payroll tax cut that has saved workers an average of about $1,000 a year in 2011 and 2012 would expire. Dozens of business tax breaks would go away.
In all, taxes would go up by more than $400 billion next year. Combined with federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect in 2013, the one-two punch would probably send the U.S. economy back into recession, according to government economists.
But the fight over Bush-era tax cuts is just the appetizer for a much bigger debate about overhauling the entire tax code.
At 3.8 million words, the U.S. tax code is so thick and so complicated that the head of the Internal Revenue Service says he has to hire someone to do his taxes. Momentum is growing in Congress to make it simpler and fairer. But it's a monumental task that won't get done without leadership from the White House.
Most lawmakers agree that the tax code is filled with too many credits, deductions and exemptions, creating too many winners and losers. Most also agree on a general formula for tax reform: Lower overall tax rates and pay for the reductions by eliminating or reducing some of those credits, deductions and exemptions.
There is, however, no consensus on the details. Why? Because every tax break — every layer of complexity — is important to somebody. In some cases, millions of somebodies.
Thirty-four million homeowners claim the mortgage interest deduction and 37 million filers claim the child tax credit. Good luck finding the votes in Congress to cut those tax breaks.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan worked across party lines with Democrats in Congress to overhaul the nation's tax laws, lowering the rates and simplifying the code.
That same type of cooperation — and trust — is essential to overhauling the tax code again. It is, however, almost nonexistent in today's Washington.
Osama bin Laden is dead and there hasn't been a successful attack by al-Qaida-inspired extremists on U.S. soil since the deadly shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. But the danger of terrorism remains a reality for Americans, as seen in the attack in Libya in September that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The terrorist assault on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 injected the issue of diplomatic security into the presidential campaign and renewed questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence.
Also a reality: the huge expense of homeland security more than a decade after 9/11, the cost to privacy and civil liberties from aggressive surveillance in the U.S. and the toll in innocent lives from U.S. drone attacks that have killed a succession of known and suspected terrorists.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama, who approved the raid that killed bin Laden, set a policy to end the use of harsh interrogation tactics. But he's greatly expanded drone attacks and is calling for the renewal of surveillance powers put in place after the 2001 attacks. He failed to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp as promised. Republican Mitt Romney has said little about terrorism in the campaign. But in the past he's said he doesn't think waterboarding is torture. Republicans also are pressing for answers on why Washington rejected requests for heavier security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before the deadly assault.
Why it matters:
Terrorism is not as great a concern for voters this election as in the past, according to polls. But that will change in a heartbeat if terrorists manage to pull off anything on a large scale or if overseas attacks like the one in Libya keep happening.
A trip through an airport may be the most tangible reminder of the impact of terrorism on Americans. Anyone who flies commercial airlines knows what it's like to have to take off their shoes and walk through body-imaging machines. The government says these security measures are necessary because terrorists continue to target airplanes and develop new methods and weapons to evade U.S. security.
There are less visible aspects of anti-terrorism, too, such as secret surveillance at home and military operations abroad.
The al-Qaida of Sept. 11, 2001, has been greatly degraded. But new, like-minded groups are becoming growing threats. And people who live in the U.S. are not immune to their messages. Dozens of Americans, inspired by al-Qaida's ideology, are known to have plotted to kill innocent people inside the U.S. and abroad. There is a fine line between expressing one's opinion, however hateful, and being motivated to commit violence. The government is constantly trying to identify the latter.
To catch terrorists before they strike, the Obama administration wants to renew a program to monitor terrorism suspects' international communications. That means at times snooping on the communications of law-abiding Americans. It's not known how often.
The government has also expanded the use of unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. These not only hit the intended targets, but have killed innocent civilians nearby.
And the government has no shortage of secret lists, many including Americans.
One list includes suspected American terrorists whom the U.S. has authorized itself to kill or capture. The justifications for that authorization are as secret as the names on the list. The government also has suspected terrorists on a no-fly list. This list ballooned under Obama and continues to grow. Though the list includes about 500 Americans, there is no official process to determine whether you are on it and whether it's for legitimate reasons.
The 2008 financial crisis roiled the banking system and swamped the global economy, leaving millions of Americans jobless, underemployed or facing foreclosure. In its wake, Congress set out to overhaul how the government oversees Wall Street. The result was a sprawling law, the Dodd-Frank Act, which aims to prevent future crises by giving the government new tools and restricting banks’ activities. The law may make future crises less likely, but it increases costs for companies, especially banks, and their customers.
Where they stand:
The hard-fought law was a big victory for President Barack Obama, and he would defend it. With Obama’s backing, government officials who are putting the law into practice are more likely to adopt a tough stance.Mitt Romney wants to repeal Dodd-Frank and start over, though he would keep a few core elements that the financial industry supports — for example, revised formulas that determine whether banks have enough solid cash to fall back on in bad times. Romney also would make it harder for financial oversight agencies to impose new rules.
Why it matters:
Four years after the financial crisis, the economic recovery remains painfully slow. The debate over banking rules is, at its core, a dispute about how to prevent another economic cataclysm.The crisis was fueled by a blend of fear and uncertainty. As the housing bubble burst, banks that had invested in the U.S. housing market teetered. Companies, unsure who would be the next to fall, stopped lending to each other.Businesses failed because they couldn’t get cash to cover their daily expenses. Mass layoffs shattered Americans’ confidence, making them less likely to buy new cars and houses.Meanwhile, millions of people faced foreclosure on houses that they bought during the boom, often with high-cost loans they did not understand. Errors and sloppy paperwork by mortgage companies added to their woes.The result was the nation’s worst recession since the Great Depression.To prevent a repeat crisis, the financial law creates a council where bank regulators can share information and discuss new threats. Big banks have drawn up “living wills,” road maps that the government could use to shutter them if necessary. With that orderly process in place, advocates say, companies will be less likely to need emergency bailouts. The government will be better able to defuse problems before they spark panic.For consumers who were stung by the housing crisis, the law bans risky lending practices like kickbacks paid to mortgage brokers who sold higher-cost loans. It creates a powerful new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to shield people from misleading marketing, hidden fees and other traps.The problem, opponents say, is that the costs to banks and consumers are prolonging the nation’s economic agony. They say this burden outweighs the benefits for consumers and the broader financial system.As companies spend more to make sure they are following the law, the argument goes, they will have less money to expand or hire new workers. Restrictions on how big banks can invest will shrink their profits, making it harder for them to lend and compete globally. To make up the difference, banks say they will have to raise the fees they charge for everything from multibillion-dollar bond offerings to checking accounts.Romney and his allies in the financial industry argue that the new rules weaken the system in unintended ways. They say farmers will pay more to protect against swinging corn prices, for example, because of changes to the market for corn futures and similar investments.