intro: With Election Day in view, Americans are dialing up their focus on President Obama and Mitt Romney, preparing to make that long-awaited choice. But before you head to the polls -- now or on Nov. 6 -- have one last look at the candidates and "where they stand" in this handy primer:
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quicklist:1 title:On Taxes: text: President Obama -- Pledged to let the "Bush tax cuts" expire for individual incomes above $200,000 and families making above $250,000, meaning the top marginal rate would climb from 35 to 39.6 percent. Obama and Republicans agree that the cuts should be extended for incomes below those levels. Obama would also raise the capital gains tax by one-third, to 20 percent for upper-income households. Corporations would see their taxes reduced from 35 percent to 28 percent. Obama added he'd close loopholes and, in doing so, provide an incentive for companies to keep their profits at home, thus broadening the tax base and government revenue.
Mitt Romney -- In the short term, Romney wants to make permanent the "Bush tax cuts," which lowered the top marginal rate from 39.6 to 35 percent. He would maintain the current rates on interest, capital gains and stock dividends. Going forward, Romney is pushing an "across-the-board 20 percent cut" for everyone. He promises the cuts would be deficit neutral, but has yet to offer details about how he would offset the lost revenue, only suggesting that certain deductions (like for giving to charity) could be capped. Romney would also eliminate the estate tax, which conservatives refer to as the "death tax." For corporations, Romney proposes lowering the rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
quicklist:2 title:On Health Care: text:Obama -- Will fully implement his Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," with provisions that would require individuals who do not receive health insurance through an employer but can afford it on their own to buy health insurance from a private provider or face a tax penalty.
Among the controversial law's many provisions, some of which have already gone into effect, insurers are required to allow children to stay on their parent's plan until age 26; insurers can no longer put a "cap" on lifetime reimbursements; insurers must accept customers with "pre-existing conditions"; insurers are required to spend at least 80 to 85 percent of premiums on patients; and states must set up "exchanges," a sort of supermarket for people who are not covered to find, ideally, the most cost-effective plans for them.
Insurers are also now compelled to provide preventive care services, including contraceptive care for women, without co-payments or additional charges.
Romney -- Pledged to begin work to repeal "Obamacare" from "day one." But given the legislative climate, the more likely move would be an executive order allowing individual states to opt out of the program. Romney has, at times, said he would like to keep some of the more popular provisions of the president's reform, but has offered no firm commitment.
quicklist:3 title:On Medicare: text: Obama -- Opposes any plan that would fundamentally change the nature of Medicare, including implementation of "premium support," which Democrats call "vouchers." Obama has expressed openness to modifications to the program to achieve savings and extend its solvency. The Affordable Care Act extended the solvency of Medicare by eight years, until 2024, by reducing payment rates to health-care providers and curbing waste, fraud and abuse, all to the tune of $716 billion. Benefits guaranteed under the program are not altered by the law. Obama has also added money to close the so-called prescription drug "donut hole."
Romney -- First, no change in benefits for beneficiaries or anyone nearing retirement age (55 or older). After that, it gets a bit murky. Romney has promised to "preserve Medicare" for future generations, but he'd do it by pushing a "premium support" plan, which means that instead of Medicare paying doctors, as it does now, the program would give money to seniors, who would then use that stipend to pick and purchase their own plans.
quicklist:4 title: On Gun Control: text:Obama -- Has offered little more, suggesting only "common sense" measures to ban the mentally unstable from buying deadly weapons. Like Romney, he has distanced himself from past support of stricter legislation, including a 1996 mailer in which he indicated support for a possible ban on "the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns."
Romney -- Despite signing a ban on assault weapons while governor of Massachusetts – saying at the time, "These guns are not made for recreation or self defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people" – Romney has no plans to change gun control laws at the federal level.
quicklist:5 title:On Gay Marriage: text: Obama -- After longstanding personal opposition to gay marriage, Obama in an exclusive interview with ABC News in May announced he believes gay couples should be allowed to wed. Has long said he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, and has called for its repeal. His Justice Department ceased defending the law in legal battles, an unprecedented move. Despite his stated support, Obama says he has no plans to push federal legislation compelling the states to recognize same-sex marriages.
Romney -- Says he will "champion" a constitutional amendment "defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman." He has also promised to appoint an attorney general who will "defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)," a law the Obama administration has stopped backing in court.
quicklist:6 title: On Gay Adoption: text: Obama -- Believes in equal adoption rights for gay and lesbians.
Romney -- Does not explicitly oppose it, but his initial support has wavered. Now, he "acknowledges" the right of same-sex couples to adopt, but would, it seems, defer to states on the issue.
quicklist:7 title: On Abortion: text:Obama -- Supports abortion rights and backs Planned Parenthood.
Romney -- Favors a ban in all but cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Has said he supports efforts to have the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. This is a departure from past positions: Romney ran as pro-choice candidate in Massachusetts in a 1994 senate race against Ted Kennedy, and again in 2002, during his successful campaign for governor.
quicklist:8 title: On Energy: text: Obama -- Supports an "all-of-the-above" plan that includes federal subsidies for wind and solar power providers. Oil drilling on state and federal lands has gone up during Obama's time in the White House, but Obama says he wants to eliminate tax incentives and subsidies for big oil companies. The president has also enacted a number of pollution restrictions on coal-burning plants. The controversial plan to build a new pipeline for crude oil from Canada's tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast into the U.S. – the Keystone XL pipeline – was partially blocked by his administration because of an environmental review, but could be revived next year.
Romney -- Has also subscribed to an "all-of-the-above" plan, meaning, in theory, no individual industry would be receive more government investment or support than the others. He wants to amend the Clean Air Act to remove carbon dioxide from its jurisdiction and says he will clear the way for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Western Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
quicklist:9 title: On Regulation: text:Obama -- Vows to fully implement 2010's Dodd-Frank legislation in a second term, which the administration officials claim will prevent another financial collapse on the scale that hit the country in 2008. The law includes mortgage law overhaul (lenders must now provide more information about the potential costs to borrowers), greater federal oversight of Wall Street and requires banks to hold more capital in reserve.
Romney -- From his website: "A Romney administration will act swiftly to tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy." That means repealing the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Romney would also amend the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 to remove what the campaign calls "onerous" accounting standards.
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quicklist:10 title:On Immigration: text:Obama -- Supports the DREAM Act and a comprehensive immigration system overhaul. With bipartisan reform out of reach, Obama, on June 15, said his administration would grant temporary legal status and work permits to eligible young, undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, complete schooling or military service, and have no criminal record. Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants during his term -- more than 1.4 million people since taking office in 2009. By contrast, President George W. Bush deported 2 million immigrants over eight years, 2001-2009.
Romney -- Opposes the DREAM Act, which offers a path to citizenship for children brought into the country illegally. He does, however, support allowing permanent citizenship for military veterans. Romney also backs the building of a border fence and has pledged to drop a Justice Department lawsuit against Arizona's controversial immigration law.
quicklist:11 title:On Education: text: Obama -- Created "Race to the Top," an initiative designed to create competition for federal grants and inspire innovation in American schools. Rejecting Bush administration policy, Obama created a waiver program that offered schools a break from "No Child Left Behind" standards. Wants the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. If passed, his American Jobs Act would steer $30 billion toward public education.
Romney -- Would push for legislation that ties federal funding to reforms that would expand "parental choice," meaning a voucher-style system that allows students and their families to shop for school. For college students, Romney wants to remove the government as much as possible from the student loan game, saying private sector options would create more competition and better deals for students.
quicklist:12 title:On War: text: Obama -- Afghanistan-Pakistan -- President Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan in December 2009. They were completely withdrawn as of September 2012. His administration set a timetable for complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by 2014. As part of the deal negotiated with the Karzai government, the U.S. will keep a smaller "residual" force in the country for at least another decade.
Both candidates support the use of unmanned drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Romney -- Afghanistan-Pakistan -- Said during a speech Oct. 8 he would "pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," right in line with the Obama timeline for withdrawal. Romney qualified this by promising he would "evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders" before making that decision. But his position, it seems, has softened since then, making it almost indistinguishable from the president's plan. (His criticism now centers on Obama's decision to make public the 2014 date.)
Obama -- Iraq -- Per a 2008 campaign pledge, Obama presided over the final withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011. Negotiations on a SOFA fell apart when the Nouri al-Maliki government refused to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops, which would have allowed a small contingent to remain past the deadline.
Romney -- Iraq -- Backed the 2007 "surge" and criticized President Obama's decision to end combat operations in 2011 without signing a "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA), which would have allowed the United States to keep about 5,000 troops in country to train Iraqi forces. The campaign has said a President Romney would manage the transition in Iraq by using a "broad array of our foreign-policy tools — diplomatic, economic, and military."
quicklist:13 title: On Defense Spending: text: Obama -- Opposes the round of automatic defense cuts (sequester). Proposed cutting $500 billion in defense spending in the next 10 years, focusing on building a smaller, more agile force and a larger fleet of drones.
Romney -- Says the military needs "rebuilding" and has promised to guarantee that at least 4 percent of GDP will go to defense spending.
quicklist: 14 title:On Israel and Palestinians: text: Obama -- His administration, unable to significantly advance peace talks between both side, has called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine. Has condemned Palestinian efforts to "delegitimize" Israel and seek independent status at the U.N. Obama has a notably cool and often frustrated relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but both administrations tout unprecedented U.S.-Israeli security ties. Together, they've just conducted the largest ever joint military exercise. U.S. military aid topped $3.1 billion this year, its highest ever amount. Obama has said the United States will stand by Israel's side if it attacks – or is attacked by – Iran.
Romney -- Publicly supports a two-state solution to be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians. He has not said what the parameters of that deal should be, nor if he'd support the 1967 borders as a starting point for talks. Romney has also said he would cut aid to Palestine if leaders there continued to push for recognition at the United Nations. But in a secretly recorded conversation with donors in May, Romney was more blunt, saying, "The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish ... [so] what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that, ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
quicklist:15 title:On Iran: text: Obama -- Has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against Iran while simultaneously pursuing multilateral diplomatic talks with China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., U.S., and Germany (also known as the "P5+1"). Obama's approach has not slowed Iran's enrichment program, which the IAEA has reported continues apace. He says all options -- including military -- remain on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Romney -- Has said he would not stand in the way of an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear sites. He has also suggested that the military beef up its presence in the Persian Gulf, impose more sanctions, and, more vocally, he has not proposed material assistance to the current government.
quicklist:16 title:On The Arab Spring: text:Obama -- Obama has called for Syria's President Assad to step down. The administration has also provided financial and other non-lethal technical support to the Syrian rebels and pushed for sanctions against the government through the U.N., but that was blocked by a Russian veto. The president has, however, called any action by the regime to mobilize or use chemical or biological weapons a "red line'" that, if crossed, could mean deeper engagement.
Romney -- Called for arming the rebels in Syria, but only those who "share our values." He has also said the U.S. must "identify and organize" those forces in an effort to blunt Iran's influence in the region. Like the president, Romney has so far withheld support for establishing a no-fly zone, Libya-style, over the country.
quicklist:17 title:On Africa: text: Obama -- Has kept up funding for programs initiated during the George W. Bush administration, including funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and research. Obama has also initiated a number of smaller-scale initiatives, like Feed the Future, which channels resources into programs that invest in "agriculture and nutrition-related activities."
Romney -- Says the American government needs to be more aggressive in backing "business-friendly" governments on the continent. Romney warns that China will establish a foothold there if the U.S. is not more proactive.
quicklist:18 title:On Russia: text:Obama -- Implemented what he called a "restart" with the Russians after taking office in 2009. His administration's "restart" with the Putin government yielded a new arms reduction treaty, but little since. Most experts on the region agree that the "restart" will need a thorough review after the election.
Romney -- Pledged to review the New Strategic Arms Reduction treaty (New START), which has both the U.S. and Russia cutting its launcher fleet by half. Romney has called Russia the country's "number one geopolitical foe," explaining he meant it in a diplomatic sense and that Iran, to his mind, is the foremost "threat" to the U.S.
quicklist:19 title: On China: text:Obama -- Has taken a dual approach to China, challenging their trade practices in cases before the World Trade Organization – initiating more new cases in the past four years that George W. Bush did in eight. Expanding the American military and diplomatic presence in Asia.
Romney -- Claims the Chinese have gained their economic stronghold in part by infringing on American intellectual property and by manipulating their currency to make it stronger on the international market. He has proposed trade tariffs and other punitive measures until they agree to new standards written by the World Trade Organization.
quicklist: 20 title:On Trade: text:Obama -- Sealed three – Colombia, South Korea, and Panama – new free trade agreements since taking office. All of them, however, were put into motion before he took office. They passed Congress with mostly Republican support. Supporters have claimed that the deals will yield about $13 billion new exports annually.
The president has not, as promised during his first run for office, moved to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Romney -- A free trade hawk, he supports (NAFTA) and is pushing for more and larger deals. Most notably, he wants to bring back the Trade Promotional Authority, which would allow the president to negotiate international trade agreements for presentation to Congress, which can give a thumbs' up or down, but not amend the terms of the deals.