Campaign Issues and Candidate Positions
Obama and Romney disagreed on a wide range of issues and concerns about government. Below are those that received substantial attention during the campaign.
Public opinion polls showed that most voters ranked the economy as their number one concern, reflecting widespread concern over the tepid recovery that the economy was making from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Republicans, including Romney, argued that the economy was growing much more slowly than it should have because President Obama's economic policies were ineffective. In particular, they criticized the economic stimulus enacted in 2009 — which congressional Democrats passed with almost no Republican support — as wasteful government spending that created few jobs. Instead, they argued, the recession should have been combated by reducing taxes and making it easier for the private sector to create jobs. President Obama defended his policies, arguing that they prevented the nation from falling into a depression and that the economy was improving, as evidenced by the drop in unemployment from 8.3 percent in January to 7.8 percent in September of 2012 (Prysby 2013).
Romney proposed substantial cuts in federal income tax rates, arguing that these cuts would stimulate economic growth. He proposed to eliminate many tax deductions and credits, and he claimed that his proposed tax system would yield just as much revenue as the current system. Romney was vague on the details of what deductions and credits would be eliminated, and many observers believed that his proposed tax system would result in much less revenue for the federal government (Calmes 2012). Obama favored tax increases for high income individuals, claiming that they had benefitted from generous tax cuts under George W. Bush and that some additional revenue was needed to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Throughout the Obama presidency, Republicans argued that federal budget deficits were dangerously large and that government spending on both discretionary and entitlement programs was out of control and needed to be cut substantially. Democrats agreed that deficits needed to be reduced in the long run, but they favored reducing spending more slowly — fearing that large and immediate cutbacks would push the nation back into recession — and also relying on tax increases to reduce budget deficits. Romney proposed reducing federal government spending to 20 percent of GDP by 2016, whereas Obama proposed reducing it to slightly less than 23 percent over the next decade (Calmes 2012).
The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was a central issue in the election. Republicans were critical of the bill from its inception in Congress, and Romney promised that he would seek immediate repeal of the bill, while Obama naturally defended his signature legislative accomplishment. Midway through the campaign, Romney said that while he wanted to repeal Obamacare, he also wanted to keep many of its provisions. Furthermore, the fact that Romney supported a similar health care policy for Massachusetts when he was governor seemed to undercut some of his arguments against Obamacare.
Medicare also emerged as a health care issue after Romney selected congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan favored moving Medicare to a voucher system, which Obama and other Democrats opposed. Romney also proposed substantial reductions in spending on Medicaid, the federal program to help low income Americans with health care expenses, whereas Obama supported an expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Energy and Environment
Obama campaigned in 2008 on the need to develop renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. He supported a strong federal government role in protecting the environment, including dealing with global warming. Romney favored a more limited government role, with the private sector and the free market determining what energy sources would be developed. He also supported increased domestic production of oil and gas.
Obama proposed in 2008 to reform the nation's immigration policy to provide legal status for many of the immigrants currently residing illegally in the country, but no such policy was enacted during his first term. Obama continued to argue that comprehensive immigration reform was desirable. One specific policy that he supported was the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to immigrants who arrived in the country as children and who fulfilled certain conditions — including either completing military service or college education. While Obama was unable to get Congress to pass this bill, he announced in June 2012 that his administration would cease deportation of young illegal aliens who fit the criteria in the DREAM Act. Romney took a firm stand against immigration reform, including the DREAM Act, during the Republican primaries. Although this position was popular among Republican primary voters, it reduced Romney's appeal to Hispanic voters in the general election.
While the presidential campaign focused heavily on economic issues, two social issues received attention. On abortion, Obama and Romney took opposite positions, with Obama in favor of legalized abortion and Romney opposed to it. On gay marriage, Obama favored allowing gays to legally marry, while Romney did not.
Foreign Affairs and National Security
Obama had several accomplishments in this area during his first term. He fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. He also announced a timetable and plan to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014, a popular decision given growing public disillusionment with the war in that country. In 2011, U.S. forces located and killed Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment that allowed the president to claim that he was vigorously and effectively conducting the war on terrorism. All that left little for Romney to criticize, but there were some areas where he argued that the Obama administration had failed to properly manage foreign affairs and national security. Romney argued that the U.S. needed increases in military spending, and he criticized the president for not providing more forceful leadership in the Middle East, including dealing with Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons.