At its core, the debate over how much the U.S. spends on defense gets down to this: What is it that America should be defending against?
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 vitality of communities large and small across the country.
Obama wants more restraint in military spending while Romney favors expansion. Obama also wants more focus on Asia-Pacific security, reflecting China's military modernization. But that and other elements of military strategy could come apart if Washington doesn't find a way to avoid automatic budget cuts starting in January.
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.
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. Wages aren't keeping up with inflation.
Obama wants to create jobs by keeping taxes low for everybody but the wealthiest and with public-works spending, clean energy projects and targeted tax breaks to businesses. Romney proposes further cuts in tax rates for all income levels; he'd also slash corporate rates, reduce regulations and encourage oil production.
Education ranks second only to the economy in issues important to Americans. Yet the U.S. lags globally in educating its children. And higher education costs are leaving students saddled with debt or unable to afford college at all.
State budget cuts have meant teacher layoffs and larger class sizes. Colleges have had to make do with less. It all trickles down to the kids in the classroom.
Although Washington contributes a small fraction of education money, it influences teacher quality, accessibility and more. For example, to be freed from provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, states had to develop federally approved reforms.
Romney wants more state and local control over education. But he supports some of Obama's proposals, notably charter schools and teacher evaluations. So, look for them to be there whoever wins the White House.
American energy is booming and that's got consequences for the economy and the environment.
Obama embraces both traditional and renewable energy sources. He's spent billions on "green energy" and backs a tax credit for the wind industry that Romney opposes. Romney pledges to make the U.S. independent of energy sources outside of North America by 2020, through more aggressive exploitation of domestic oil, natural gas, coal and more, and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined because of the economic downturn, improved efficiency and changes in consumer behavior. 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.
Critics, though, worry that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling could harm air, water and health.
If Obama wins re-election, he could get a second wind on environmental regulations that were delayed in his first term. A Romney presidency is likely to roll back what Republicans consider excessive and expensive rules.