WASHINGTON – Election Day could well determine how much you end up paying in taxes. It could move the bar for fighting future wars. If you care about “Obamacare,” this may be your last, best chance to save it or unravel it – with your vote.

Long after the fuss fades over President Obama’s snoozy debate opener and Mitt Romney’s weird flub or two, one of them will be hard at work trying to make good on his agenda. This will include pressing any opportunity to reshape the Supreme Court, which hovers over all other issues.

The winner’s policies are almost certain to find you where you live, no matter how far you are from Washington in your mind or your place. The taxman cometh. So does the Social Security check for retirees – and the shakier-by-the-decade promise of those checks for everyone else.

Obama’s mandate for almost everyone to have health insurance – along with all the coverage protections that flow from that – constitutes the largest reshaping of social policy in generations, with the effects to be felt ever more as the law takes firmer hold in the next few years. If Romney wins and gets enough like-minded people in Congress, he would reset that and try something else.

Voters, like candidates, can’t predict what economic calamity will come out of the blue. But it’s clear both from records and rhetoric that Obama believes in the power of government and the Treasury to stimulate growth, add jobs and even save industries in ways that Romney doesn’t. On Nov. 6, voters choose governing principles as much as a list of positions.

That holds true on foreign policy, too. At the moment, Romney comes across as more aggressive against Iran and on the conflict in Syria. On Afghanistan, he now supports the president’s plan to end U.S. combat in 2014 and appears to have dropped his qualification that a withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground at the time. Apparently modest differences may come to nothing after the campaign, or they could prove substantive – determining whether the U.S. truly extricates itself from one war and how willing it will be to fight another.

The choice in the election doesn’t just matter on the issues the candidates want to talk about. It can matter just as much on the issues they avoid. This is where the Supreme Court comes in.

With four justices in their 70s, there’s a strong chance the next president will have a chance to fill at least one seat on a court closely divided between conservatives and liberals. One new face on the bench could mean a major change in civil liberties, gay relationships, gun control, health care, the approach to terrorism, perhaps access to abortion, and more, for years to come.

All told, a lot of tipping points on Election Day. That’s democracy for you.


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 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.

Auto bailout

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.


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.


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.

Health care

America’s health care system is unsustainable. It’s not one problem, but three: cost, quality and coverage.

The U.S. has world-class hospitals and doctors, but it spends far more than other advanced countries and people aren’t much healthier. And in an aging society, there’s no reliable system for long-term care.

Obama’s expansion of coverage for the uninsured hits high gear in 2014. Obama keeps today’s Medicare while trying to slow costs. He also extends Medicaid.

Romney would repeal Obama’s health care law but hasn’t spelled out what he’d do instead. On Medicare, he favors the option of a government payment to help future retirees get private coverage.

The risk of expanding coverage: Health costs consume a growing share of the stressed economy. The risk of not: Millions continue uninsured or saddled with heavy coverage costs as the population grows older.


With the Iraq war over and Afghanistan winding down, Iran is the most likely place for a new U.S. military conflict.

Obama says he’ll prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He hopes sanctions alongside negotiations can get Iran to halt uranium enrichment. But the strategy hasn’t worked yet. Obama holds out the threat of military action as a last resort.

Romney accuses Obama of being weak on Iran. He says the U.S. needs to present a greater military threat. Yet he says sanctions are working and war should only be considered when all else fails.

Attacking Iran is no light matter. That is why neither candidate clearly calls for military action.

Tehran can disrupt global fuel supplies, hit U.S. allies in the Gulf or support proxies such as Hezbollah in acts of terrorism. It could also draw the U.S. into an unwanted new war in the Muslim world.

Social Security

Unless Congress acts, the trust funds that support Social Security are on pace to run out of money in 2033, triggering an automatic 25 percent cut in benefits that millions of older Americans rely on for most of their income.

That may seem far off. But the sooner Congress acts, the more time to phase in changes slowly.

Social Security could be preserved for generations with modest but politically difficult changes to benefits or taxes, or some of both.

Obama hasn’t laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. Romney proposes a gradual increase in the retirement age and, for future beneficiaries, slower growth in benefits for the wealthy.

But nothing will happen without White House leadership.

For millions of retired and disabled workers, Social Security is almost all they have to live on. Monthly retirement benefits are $1,237; average disability benefits, $1,111.


Almost every U.S. taxpayer faces a significant tax increase next year, unless Congress and the White House agree on a plan to extend a huge collection of tax cuts expiring at the end of the year.

And there’s a huge debate over how to overhaul the tax code to make it simpler, with lower rates balanced by fewer deductions.

Obama wants to extend Bush-era tax cuts again, but only for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000.

Romney wants to extend all those tax cuts and enact new ones, dropping all income tax rates by 20 percent. Romney says he would pay for that by eliminating or reducing tax credits, deductions and exemptions. But he won’t say which ones would go.

Most lawmakers want a simpler tax code, but millions count on the mortgage interest deduction, child tax credit and more, making progress all but impossible.