Think of the presidential debates as a drama in three acts. In different formats with different moderators, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have spent four and a half hours in each other?s company on national TV ? watched by 70 million people ? presenting their case for becoming the next president of the United States. Now forget all that nonsense about who won. Forget what they said. Who do you trust to run the country?
In the end, that?s what it comes down to.
The Trade Offs
Yes, Mitt Romney represents a view of government that would drastically cut federal spending (except on the military). He wants to curtail government regulations and realign entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid to rein in a troublesome $16 trillion federal deficit. To curry your favor, he has proposed a 20 percent cut in everyone?s income tax rate (to be offset by eliminating tax loopholes). If that sounds good to you, give him your vote: just don?t expect any of it to happen. The details of his plan are so sketchy no one takes it seriously.
And yes, Barack Obama has promised that he too will tackle the federal deficit by letting tax rates rise on people earning over $250,000. This will restore them to the same level (39%) that prevailed during the Clinton administration, but it is not enough to make a dent in the deficit. In the short run, Obama is promising to boost spending on infrastructure, alternative energy programs, education and small business incentives to jump start new economic activity. His proposed increase in taxes on high-income earners will finance this. But only after the economy is once again booming and America enjoys the peacetime dividend from ending the war in Afghanistan will the federal debt begin to subside. If that sounds good to you, give him your vote: just don?t expect it to happen.
The Cliff No One Sees
What happens next in the American economy will not be dictated by either candidate?s platform. It is far more dependent on how the political parties deal with the ?fiscal cliff? looming in January when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the same time the spending cuts Congress ?sequestered? last year when it failed to reach a compromise on raising the debt ceiling come due.
That will require a compromise between the president and a Congress whose composition will be determined on the same day as the presidency (and only a blind man throwing darts at a wall would venture a guess at what that configuration will look like). So one way to decide whether Obama or Romney gets your vote is to determine who you think will be in the best position to broker a deal to your liking.
A Businessman or a Politician
The choice comes down to selection of a businessman or a politician, and not a very good one, if you listen to Romney?s stump speech. In his first two years in office, when both branches of Congress were under Democratic control, President Obama managed to pass landmark health and financial reform legislation at the same time his administration was digging the country out of an economic hole almost as dire as the Great Depression. It was an impressive, even historic feat, that was quickly overshadowed when the 2010 midterm elections gave Tea Party Republicans control of the House, and virtually all legislation came to a standstill.
Mitt Romney promises to break this stalemate by bringing to bear his skills as a successful businessman. He is brimming with ideas on how to run the country. They have become part of the most irritating mantra in politics this year: the things Romney would do ?on day one? to right the American ship. But there is little evidence in history that good businessmen make good presidents (case in point: Herbert Hoover) and running the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City is not the same as dealing with Congress. You can?t just fire Harry Reid because he won?t pass your bills.
After the electoral ?shellacking? that led to Republican control of the House in 2010, Obama?s agenda has been stalled in every corner of Congress, but he has also built bridges to key legislators (even if that meant playing golf with John Boehner) and laid the groundwork for a second term that gets off on the right foot by reaching a compromise on sequestration. (He hinted as much at the last debate.)
For Romney to effect the changes he is proposing, he will have to muster a bi-partisan coalition in a very short amount of time around ideas that so far have not even been dipped once in the snake pit. Obama, at least, has put his ideas on the table and endured a painful last two years watching them die in the Republican House. If he is re-elected, he is in a far better position to thread together a negotiated compromise??especially if the composition of the House and Senate shifts more to the center??than Romney is building one out of whole cloth.
Ironically, this makes Obama the more conservative choice for voters who want to see bi-partisan action on the economy. Mitt Romney is asking Americans to start over with a businessman in charge; Obama promises to stay the course under a battle-tested politician who, after coming to Washington as an outsider, knows the terrain.
The last of the three presidential debates focused on American foreign policy. By any measure of polling or public opinion, Barack Obama demonstrated an impressive grasp of the topic and a record of success that left even Mitt Romney mute.
As Obama outlined the steps his administration has taken to draw down American troops in Afghanistan, pursue Al Qaeda leaders with drone strikes, support the Arab Spring, overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, Romney could only nod his assent. Sure, Romney would have preferred that America?s response to certain crises came sooner or appeared ?stronger.? But Romney?s campaign apparently made the decision not to contest the President?s record in the debate for fear of a major stumble (like claiming Syria is Iran?s ?gateway to the sea?).
Up until the last debate, Romney had hardly been so circumspect. He was quick to inject himself into developing crises, often with no more advice than America should be ?tougher? in dealing with our enemies. By not challenging Obama in the debate, Romney projected the image of a calmer, more reasonable decisionmaker, statesman-like enough to lead America on the world stage if called upon. But the work that President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have done over the last four years to restore America?s reputation should not be underestimated,
A BBC poll conducted among 20,000 respondents in 20 foreign countries found President Obama favored by an average of 50 percent of foreigners versus 9 percent for Mitt Romney. (In France, Obama beat Romney 72 to 4 percent.) None of those polled can vote in the United States, of course, but some do carry guns. It?s comforting to know they like our president.
What Do Women Want?
In the waning days of the campaign, most voters are locked in on their favorite candidate, but the women?s vote is still in play, particularly white women under the age of 40 who live mostly in the suburbs.
The Obama administration is bombarding them with political messages about the danger that Romney will interfere with their health care decisions. The Romney campaign is appealing to them as part of a larger subset of workers suffering from a stagnant economy. But the issue that is really being debated is abortion. It comes up obtusely at times, or through the ham-handed remarks of Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana about the fate of children conceived during rapes, but it remains one of the great divides of American politics. President Obama?s pro-choice credentials are consistent and long standing. Mitt Romney has been on both sides of the question. This year he has made clear he believes abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to preserve the health of the mother.
Romney and Obama?s philosophical position on abortion is really neither here nor there. Except for regulatory issues like whether contraceptives must be covered under health insurance, or budgetary decisions like funding Planned Parenthood, neither Romney or Obama can do much to alter the law of the land. A woman?s right to seek an abortion has been constitutionally-protected since the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1972.
But this is one issue where your vote for President can really matter, and the choice is clear. Roe vs. Wade was decided by a 5-4 margin in the Supreme Court. With the court similarly divided today, opponents of abortion are looking to bring a new case that might lead to overturning that ruling, and the next president will have a lot of say on that.
At least one??and perhaps more??of the current nine Supreme Court justices will retire in the next four years. Any replacement nominated by the President could tip the balance on this, and other key cases. When you vote for President this year, remember you are also voting to elect the next Supreme Court justice.