After 18 months of grueling campaign travel, more than $2 billion in spending, mostly on ads, and four vigorous debates, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney turned a razor-thin election into the hands of voters.
The estimated 133 million Americans who will head to the polls Tuesday face two stark realities: the candidates they’ll choose from offer vastly different visions about the role of government in the economy and in our lives, and the winner will almost certainly be left to work with a sharply divided Congress that agrees on little.
Most polls show Democrats retaining control of the Senate, while Republicans keep the House. And that means legislative action on big-ticket items is less likely, leaving the next president to fashion much of his agenda via executive powers.
Throw in a debt deal, and there’s little room for new spending or initiatives. And that means much of the debate over the next two years in Washington will come down to what Americans can do without – as the political powers decide how to shrink a suffocating national debt.
On that front, the two contenders offer a stark difference. The incumbent Obama sees a large role for government, whether funding the next generation of clean energy development, mandating that all Americans secure health insurance or imposing tough regulations on businesses that pollute or abuse Wall Street trading.
And to pay for it, Obama would ask wealthier Americans to pay more in taxes.
The president’s approach to government was on full display this past week as he brought to bare the full resources of the federal bureaucracy to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, even activating the military to truck in gas and diesel when local gas stations couldn’t serve it up. It was noticeably different from the Bush administration, where officials waited for days for state officials to request such help during the Katrina disaster.
As he has said many times this election, Obama believes government is there to make sure all Americans are “in this together.”
Romney, on the other hand, believes it is time to shrink government, arguing it’s too big and too costly to sustain in an era of trillion dollar annual deficits. He also argues that businesses and innovation thrive when federal bureaucracy gets out of the way.
A Romney administration would offer lower tax rates to corporations and taxes, fewer government agencies and workers and less regulation on everything from coal-fired plants to Wall Street investments. He’d also end direct subsidies to energy companies, limiting clean energy aid to research. And he’d gut large parts of Obama’s signature health care law.
The Massachusetts Republican summed up his philosophy in a speech earlier this year during the GOP primaries.
"Government has become too large. We're headed in a very dangerous direction. I believe to get America back on track, we're going to have to have dramatic, fundamental, extraordinary change in Washington to be able to allow our private sector to once again re-emerge competitively, to scale back the size of government."
With a divided Congress and a stubborn debt deal, the next president won’t have much leeway to shrink or grow government expansively. The solutions will have to be bipartisan if legislative, and creative if done by executive fiat.
But after a campaign that was hard fought, these two candidates have offered Americans a clear choice on the path forward.