Energy jobs. Both candidates have been singing the praises of the energy sector as a potential source of jobs. Romney has touted jobs tied to oil, gas, and coal, also known as “brown” jobs, while Obama has emphasized "green" jobs tied to renewable-energy development. Romney could face questions on the environmental consequences of expanded development of fossil fuel industries. Obama could face questions over government loan guarantees provided to failed solar-panel-maker Solyndra.
Health care reform. On health care, Romney has alternately praised and criticized the approach to expanding health coverage at the heart of his Massachusetts plan and Obama’s health reform law. He will need to answer which provisions, exactly, he thinks are right for the country and what policies should replace "Obamacare" if he persuades a new Congress to repeal it. Key among the questions he must answer: Does he want to expand health insurance coverage to Americans who don’t have it? Obama will need to defend the costs of the unpopular health reform law. While it saves money on paper, Republicans have been hammering the law as a new entitlement program and a budget-buster, and the Obama administration’s chief Medicare actuary argues that the law’s Medicare savings are unrealistic.
Medicare. With Paul Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket, Medicare has become a hot topic in the election. Romney and Ryan support a plan to convert Medicare from a government insurer to a program in which the government subsidizes a variety of private plans. When he talks about Medicare, Romney typically criticizes Medicare cost savings that are part of the Obama health reform law instead of discussing his own plan. A tough moderator will ask him to explain how his proposed system would work and why it would not harm seniors. Obama should, similarly, be pressed to explain how his law can rein in Medicare spending without reducing patients’ access to care. Both Obama and Romney may also be asked to address whether their plans would actually resolve Medicare’s long-term budgetary problems. (Hint: they don’t.)
Role of government. The moderators have set aside a 15-minute block to ask about the candidates’ views on the role of government, a fitting topic in an election in which visions differ so significantly. Romney will need to explain his “47 percent” comments, presumably defending his ticket’s critique of growing government entitlements while explaining when and how government programs should intervene to help Americans in trouble. Obama drew criticism this summer with his "you didn't build that" remark referring to businesses, which aides said was a reference to how public structures enable commerce. The incumbent must also counter concerns that in areas across the domestic policy spectrum—in health care, environmental protection, fiscal policy, financial regulation, and student loans—he has sought to expand the role of government. Each will need to explain where they believe government helps and hampers individual success and economic growth. Expect sharp contrasts.
Relations with Congress. The fiscal cliff, a combination of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that will kick in at the end of the year without action by Congress, will provide a test of presidential leadership for Obama when lawmakers return to Washington for the postelection lame-duck session. Obama has taken heat for his failed attempts at a deficit deal last year, a failure that led to a credit downgrade for U.S. debt. More broadly, both candidates are likely to face divided government, if current polls are any indication, and both should be able to spell out a strategy for working with their opponents in Congress’s increasingly polarized environment.
Executive authority. Frustrated by a paralyzed Congress, the Obama administration has been making the most of its executive authority to enact domestic policy, including deciding to allow young undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and allowing states flexibility in interpreting welfare-to-work rules. Romney has promised to use the presidency to issue waivers to undo Obama’s health reform law “on day one.” The candidates are likely to be asked about their visions of the proper roles for the president and Congress, and their views on the limits on executive power in the domestic sphere.