WHY IT MATTERS: Issues at stake in election
A selection of issues at stake in the presidential election and their impact on Americans, in brief:
Abortion and birth control are divisive issues in politics, and they've flared up at times in this campaign despite the candidates' reluctance to dwell on them.
President Barack Obama supports abortion rights. And his health care law requires contraceptives to be available for free for women in workplace health plans.
Republican Mitt Romney opposes abortion rights, though he previously supported them. He says the Supreme Court ruling establishing abortion rights should be reversed, allowing states to ban abortion. He's also criticized mandatory coverage for contraception as a threat to religious liberty.
Romney's ability as president to enact federal abortion restrictions would be limited unless Republicans gained firm control of Congress. But the next president could have great influence over abortion policy if vacancies arise on the Supreme Court. If two seats held by liberal justices were filled by Romney-nominated conservatives, prospects for a reversal of Roe v. Wade would increase.
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.
After nearly tripling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009-10, 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. Romney now endorses ending combat in 2014, saying flatly "we're going to be finished" then.
Neither says, though, what happens if it turns out that by 2014, Afghan forces are losing ground and need U.S. forces to avoid a Taliban takeover.
Only small numbers of al-Qaida fighters are still in Afghanistan. But the concern is that if U.S. and allied forces leave prematurely, the Taliban would regain power — and al-Qaida would not be far behind.
There's little doubt the government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler kept the automakers afloat and saved 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 rescue. GM stock is selling for less than half the price needed for the government to recover all of its nearly $50 billion investment in that company.
Obama carried forward a bailout begun by his predecessor. Romney opposed it. He said the companies should have gone through a private restructuring, with certain government guarantees after they reorganized.
Three years later, both companies are profitable. Chrysler has added almost 12,000 workers; GM, about 2,000. It's been estimated that 1 million jobs have been saved at automakers, parts companies and related businesses.
This presidential election is on track to cost nearly $2 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.
Recent court decisions have stripped away restrictions on how elections are financed, allowing the very rich to afford more speech than the rest. In turn, super PACs have flourished, thanks as well to limitless contributions from the wealthy — including contributors who have business before the government.
Disclosure rules offer a glimpse into who's behind the money. But the information is often too vague to be useful. And nonprofits that run so-called issue ads don't have to reveal donors.
Obama criticized the Supreme Court for removing campaign finance restrictions. Romney supported the ruling. Both are using the lax rules with gusto.
The U.S. accuses China of flouting trade rules and undervaluing its currency to helps its exporters, hurting American competitors and jobs. But imposing tariffs could set off a trade war and drive up prices for American consumers.
Tensions now have spread to the automotive sector: The U.S. is seeking international rulings against Chinese subsidies for its auto and auto-parts exports and against Chinese duties on U.S. autos. Romney says he'll get tougher on China's trade violations. Obama has taken a variety of trade actions against China, but on the currency issue, he has opted to wait for economic forces to encourage Beijing to raise values.
Cheap Chinese goods have benefited American consumers and restrained inflation. But those imports have hurt American manufacturers. And many U.S. companies outsource production to China. One study estimated that between 2001 and 2010, 2.8 million U.S. jobs were lost or displaced to China.
What, exactly, is discrimination and what should be done to fight it? This election offers choices on the answer.
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 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 passed in some Republican-led states. Opponents contend such laws unfairly discourage minority voting.
Under Obama, the government has aggressively prosecuted cases where statistics show that blacks and Hispanics are hit harder than whites. 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.
This year America's weather has been hotter and more extreme than ever before, records show. Yet the presidential candidates aren't talking about it.
In the U.S. July was the hottest month ever recorded, and this year is on track to be the warmest. Scientists say that's both from 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 glaciers and summer Arctic sea ice are shrinking. Plants are blooming earlier. Some species could die because of global warming.
Obama proposed a bill to cap power plant carbon dioxide emissions, but it died in Congress. Still, he's doubling auto mileage standards and put billions into cleaner energy. Romney now questions the science of man-made global warming and says some actions to curb emissions could hurt an already struggling economy.
The risk of a devastating cyberattack on the United States is real. Yet a political dispute exists over the role the federal government should play in securing the computer networks that control the electrical grid, water supply and other critical sectors. While that debate goes on, the country remains vulnerable to an electronic Pearl Harbor.
Obama wants the owners of essential U.S. infrastructure to meet minimum cybersecurity standards. But Republicans in Congress say the president's approach will only lead to costly, time-consuming regulations that won't reduce the risk. Romney says Obama has failed to lead on a critical national security issue.
While Congress bickers, the Pentagon worries. "The uncomfortable reality of our world today is that bits and bytes can be as threatening as bullets and bombs," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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 — has topped $1 trillion for a fourth straight year. The government borrows about 31 cents for every dollar it spends.
The national debt is the total amount the federal government owes. It's risen to a shade over $16 trillion.
Obama has proposed bringing deficits down by slowing spending gradually, to avoid suddenly tipping the economy back into recession. He'd raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 and impose a surcharge of 30 percent on those making more than $1 million. Romney would lower deficits mostly through deep spending cuts. But many of the cuts he's pushing would be partially negated by his proposals to lower top tax rates on corporations and individuals.
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.
Obama achieved historic increases in fuel-economy standards and imposed the first regulations on heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. His administration tightened standards on mercury pollution from power plants and set new controls on soot.
But he couldn't persuade a Democratic Congress to pass limits he promised on carbon emissions and shelved a plan to toughen health standards on lung-damaging smog.
Romney questions the cause of climate change and he's criticized Obama's treatment of coal-fired power plants. He opposes treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and wants the cost of complying with regulations given more consideration.
European economic crisis:
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 into recession.
Europe's troubles are the No. 1 threat to the U.S. economy. The biggest fear is that the 17-country eurozone will split, causing a financial crisis that will spread across the Atlantic, freeze credit and send the U.S. economy back into recession.
Neither Obama nor Romney has offered plans for Europe. The U.S. government lacks the cash and the will to rescue European countries struggling with huge government debts.
Obama has urged Europe to act more decisively. Romney warns that the United States will face its own day of reckoning if it can't reduce the federal debt. Many economists call for eurozone countries to assume joint responsibility for the weakest countries' debts through eurobonds; Germany has balked at the idea.
Both sides of the gay marriage debate agree on this much: The issue defines what sort of nation America will be.
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.
Obama supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, as a matter decided by states. Romney says same-sex marriage should be banned with a constitutional amendment.
The debate divides the public down the middle, according to recent polls, and stirs up passion on both sides.
In November, four states have gay-marriage measures on their ballots. In Minnesota, the vote is whether to ban 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.
Gun violence has been splayed across front pages with alarming frequency lately: the deadly Milwaukee spa shootings, the movie theater killings in Colorado, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin, 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.
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