With the election a week away, Americans are about to choose between the competing visions of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a center-left agenda versus a center-right agenda. Here's a primer on their priorities and how each would govern:
First and foremost, this is not only a competition between two political philosophies. It's also a choice between the candidates' approaches to leadership, their governing styles, and which interests each man is closest to and would be most likely to represent.
Obama, as has become clear over the past four years, has governed as an advocate for a prominent role for government in national life. He won congressional passage of a massive overhaul of the health-care system, known as "Obamacare," which is a lightning rod for criticism from Romney and the right. And, with his massive economic stimulus package designed to lift the economy out of recession, Obama has presided over a huge increase in federal spending. The government's debt is estimated at $16 trillion.
Although Obama has been promising to tackle the deficit, he is also pledging to reorganize the federal government. "I truly believe," he said this week on MSNBC, "that if we can get the deficit and debt issues solved, which I believe we can get done in the lame-duck [session of Congress, after the election] or in the immediate aftermath of the lame-duck, then that clears away a lot of the ideological underbrush." Then, Obama said, "we can start looking at a whole bunch of other issues that... historically have not been that ideological."
He added: "I want to consolidate a whole bunch of government agencies. We should have one Secretary of Business, instead of nine different departments that are dealing with things like giving loans to SBA or helping companies with exports. There should be a one-stop shop."
If he is re-elected on Tuesday, Obama will push for more of the same center-left policies that he implemented in his first term. He is expected to return to the issue of immigration reform, advocating a path to legal residency for many people who entered the United States illegally. He will also use his executive power and the government's regulatory authority to take action on a variety of fronts, from protecting the environment and preserving public land to advocating for consumers.
In foreign affairs, Obama has been aggressive in using military force abroad, deflecting conservative charges that Democrats are too timid in projecting American power. As he continually reminds voters, it was Obama who launched the mission that killed terrorist leader Osama bin laden, and it is Obama who is increasingly using drones to kill other terrorists. Obama would continue these approaches. At the same time, he is ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and wants to shift resources to "nation-building" at home.
Obama would also stay close to a far different group of interest groups and constituencies than Romney. The interests that Obama listens to would include leaders of African-American and Latino groups, women's groups, organized labor, and gay-rights organizations, who are among his strongest advocates. The result would be not only another campaign for immigration reform, but also more efforts to protect the rights of women, unions, African-Americans, and gays.
On the other hand, Romney would by all indications run a government of the center-right. He took very conservative positions during the Republican primaries, opposing abortion rights in most cases and taking a strong stand against illegal immigration. In fact, his stance on immigration was so severe that it spawned enduring distrust among many Latinos. But during the general-election campaign, he has moved in some ways to the center and tried to show his caring, empathetic side.
Still, his agenda is basically conservative. Speaking to a rally in Avon Lake, Ohio Monday, Romney promised to reduce taxes on corporations and small businesses, which he argued would allow firms to generate more profits and use the money to hire more people and expand. "If you want good jobs when you get out of school...you have to see entrepreneurs starting businesses and big companies growing," Romney said. "And what you've seen over the last several years is the opposite of that."
"I'll make those proposals to our Congress on Day One" of his presidency, Romney said.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, also pledges to repeal Obama's health-care law, reduce the deficit, balance the budget, cut regulation, promote energy independence, and increase trade.
And Romney has served notice that he would increase the military budget and advance a muscular foreign policy in which the United States is more aggressive about promoting its own interests around the globe. He has expressed concern about pulling out of Afghanistan prematurely and says he would consult with America's military leaders on the best course.
Just as important, Romney made clear in the campaign that he is most at home in the world of corporations and business leaders. This is where he developed his economic expertise as a successful investor, and this is where he would turn for advice and probably for appointments to his Cabinet and his White House.
Much will depend on which party controls the House and Senate, and this won't be known until Election Day. Neither Obama nor Romney are naturally confrontational, and both promise some form of outreach to their opponents.
But if Obama wins, and the GOP controls one or both houses of Congress, it's likely that the two sides would remain at loggerheads. If Romney wins, it may be possible that he can move beyond the bitter arguments of the past four years and find new paths to compromise, with a conservative tilt. He would have the advantage of bringing a fresh approach. That, at least, is what his supporters argue.
Of course, it may be that Romney, facing a divided Washington, would do no better at fostering a spirit of cooperation than Obama has. This could mean more stalemate, more partisan bickering, and more disenchantment from the American public.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington, for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.