Wednesday evening’s presidential debate is a chance for voters to see where President Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney stand on key domestic issues such as job creation, the budget, and health care policy. The 90-minute event, moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer, will be divided into six 15-minute sessions—half on the economy and the rest on health care, the role of government, and governing style.
Here are some of the issues likely to come up:
Job creation. Both candidates are likely to be grilled on how they would bring down the nation’s 8.1 percent unemployment rate, including their strategy to push measures through a gridlocked Congress. Expect Romney to be asked how he’ll create a promised 12 million jobs, and how that number was calculated. Obama offered a series of job-creation proposals in his State of the Union address at the beginning of this year. He might be asked what he's learned from his struggles to pass those proposals and his difficulty in bringing down stubbornly high unemployment.
Deficit reduction. The Congressional Budget Office has forecast that debt held by the public will surge to 90 percent of gross domestic product in the next 10 years. Plans put forth by Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan would rein in entitlement spending and overhaul the tax code while bringing down income-tax rates. But Romney has provided few specifics on the tax plan, and independent analysts have questioned whether it could achieve all of its goals without adding to the deficit. Expect him to be grilled on the details. Obama has offered a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. But the number counts savings from the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president will likely be asked how he can achieve such a high number without significant changes to the three main debt drivers: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Financial regulation. Romney has said he would repeal the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. But he has not said what he would put it its place, and a natural question would be whether Romney’s plans would enable banks and businesses to grow without risking another financial crisis. The Dodd-Frank law is a key achievement of Obama’s first term, but critics contend that the regulations are too complicated and have the potential to hamper economic growth. Obama may have to respond to this charge.
The Federal Reserve Board. The central bank has been in the political crosshairs ever since it embarked on a series of extraordinary measures to boost economic growth in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Romney denounced the Fed’s most recent action—a new round of bond-buying intended to drive down long-term interest rates—as a “sugar high” and cautioned that it risks causing a rise in inflation. He has said he wouldn’t reappoint Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose term expires in 2014. Romney could be asked to discuss potential successors. Obama’s White House rarely comments on the politically independent Fed. But in 2010, Obama reappointed Bernanke, who was initially tapped for the Fed by Republican President George W. Bush. A fair question, then, is whether he endorses Bernanke’s methods, and whether he would appoint the Fed chief again or seek a fresh leader of the central bank.
Immigration. Citing the economic benefits, Romney and Obama have both said they want to lift quotas on visas for high-skilled immigrants and to grant permanent residency to foreign students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Due to the similarity of their positions, the candidates may be more likely to be pressed on specifics on illegal immigration, where they differ. Romney offered few details on his plan to reform immigration, particularly what would happen to the 12 million undocumented people currently living in the United States, although he told The Denver Post earlier this week that he would not repeal temporary visas for children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. Obama, on the other hand, has focused on so-called pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but has failed to get Congress to pass any legislation to that effect. Obama vowed this spring in an interview with Univision to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of a second term, but he could be pressed to detail how he would overcome Republican congressional opposition.