By The Associated Press
Here’s a look at some key issues at stake in the 2012 presidential election and their impact on people:
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 President Barack 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.
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. Republican Mitt 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.
America’s health care system is unsustainable. It’s not one problem, but three: cost, quality and coverage.
The United States 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.
The income gap between the rich and everyone else is getting larger, while middle incomes stagnate. That’s raised concerns that the middle class isn’t sharing in economic growth as it used to.
Obama would raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year, plus set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for those earning $1 million or more. He also wants to spend more on education, “a gateway to the middle class.” Romney would cut taxes more broadly and says that will generate enough growth to raise all incomes.
Income inequality has risen for three decades and worsened since the recession ended. The Census Bureau found the highest-earning 20 percent earned 51.1 percent of all income last year. That was the biggest share on records dating to 1967. The share earned by households in the middle 20 percent fell to 14.3 percent, a record low.
High unemployment and economic weakness have fueled fears that the United States is losing well-paid jobs to low-cost countries such as China. The decision by high-tech firms such as Apple to manufacture in China has raised concerns that higher-skilled jobs are also being lost.
Obama has proposed a variety of tax changes that he says will discourage outsourcing. Romney promises to make the nation more attractive for businesses to locate by cutting taxes and reducing regulations. The issue has arisen even as there are signs the outsourcing trend is slowing.
Wages are rising in China while wages and other costs are falling in the United States. That’s eroding China’s cost advantage. Obama and Romney hope to encourage more companies to keep jobs in the U.S. But it’s unlikely that anywhere close to the 6 million manufacturing jobs lost from 2000 to 2010 will be regained.
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.
Wall Street regulation:
The debate over banking rules is, at its core, a dispute about how to prevent another economic cataclysm.
The financial crisis that peaked in 2008 touched off a global economic slowdown. Four years later, the recovery remains painfully slow.
After the crisis, Congress passed a sprawling overhaul of banking rules and oversight. The law gives regulators new tools to shutter banks without resorting to emergency bailouts.
It restricts risky lending and establishes a new agency to protect consumers from misleading marketing and other traps.
The new rules also boost companies’ costs, according to Romney and many in the business community. Romney believes the law is prolonging the nation’s economic agony by making it harder for companies to invest and grow. He has pledged to repeal it. Obama fought for and supports the law.