The election is about economic revival on both sides, and that means a lot of nuts and bolts along with competing visions of how to achieve it.
So there are promises of training programs here, a Department of Business there, tax cuts galore, a powered-up armed forces, energy initiatives at every turn and more, all improbably paired up with pledges from both men to tackle the national debt.
Almost everything they promise hinges on the makeup of Congress after the election, their skill at twisting arms in those halls and postelection judgments about whether some things are really worth the fight. Romney's promised repeal of "Obamacare" can't happen without enough like-minded lawmakers, just as Obama's promised steps on climate change didn't happen — and that was with fellow Democrats in control.
Obama achieved the big health care law against tough odds, but an immigration overhaul eluded him and those George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy that he swore he'd end are still around, for him to go after again. That's why, despite the shortage of new promises from him in this campaign, he's got plenty outstanding.
A glimpse at a dozen promises from each candidate, with some handicapping:
1. Roll back Bush tax cuts for upper-income people. He compromised with the GOP and went along with renewing the expiring across-the-board tax cuts begun by his Republican predecessor, even though he wanted to revert to higher rates for couples making over $250,000 and individuals making over $200,000. Obama is still promising to raise those rates and more — and pretty much needs to, because much of his agenda depends on getting more tax revenue from wealthier people.
2. Put government on a path to cutting deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years. A tall order, and his performance on it over the next four years would help shape his legacy for better or worse. He failed in his first-term promise to cut deficits by half, instead running trillion-dollar deficits for four straight years due largely to the recession he inherited, a halting comeback and big spending to spur the recovery.
3. Cut imports of foreign oil by half by 2020. For generations, presidents have fruitlessly held out the dream of making the U.S. self-sufficient in energy. But the boom in domestic production may at last be nudging the nation toward that goal.
4. End subsidies to the oil industry. A leftover promise that went nowhere in the last four years.
5. Prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. has imposed painful oil and financial penalties on Iran to persuade it to cease uranium enrichment activity, so far without apparent success. Obama has left open the possibility of military action if that's what it takes to stop Iranian nuclear development.
6. "Take away tax breaks for companies shipping jobs overseas" as part of a plan to invigorate domestic manufacturing. A tougher slog than it might sound. U.S. corporations don't pay U.S. taxes on overseas profits unless they bring that cash back to the United States. Obama says this encourages outsourcing. Republicans say taxing such profits would make U.S. companies move headquarters overseas, not just production.
7. "I want to make sure that we get comprehensive immigration reform that gives young people who've been raised here a chance to live out their own American dream." This failed before. Obama would try again, and counts it as the first thing he would do next year after a deficit-cutting deal. Without needing congressional action, he decided on a temporary measure in June letting up to 1.7 million young illegal immigrants stay and work for up to two years.
8. Make higher education affordable for everyone, in part by halving the growth in college tuition over 10 years. Ensure by the end of the decade that the U.S. has more people with college degrees than any other country, recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in 10 years, help 2 million workers attend community college.
9. "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet— because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke." From his convention speech, this was a rare reference to climate change from a president who pledged strong action in a first term, then fell mostly silent about it after promised legislation to cap emissions failed. Even so, Obama has come at the issue in other ways, treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the law and steering billions of dollars into cleaner energy.
10. Strengthen Medicare by reducing the cost of health care. Steps already taken under the health care law improve benefits while cutting payments to hospitals and other providers by more than $700 billion over a decade — cuts used to help working-age Americans get insurance.
11. "We can help big factories and small businesses double their exports, and if we choose this path, we can create a million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years. You can make that happen. You can choose that future." In October, manufacturers added 13,000 jobs after shedding 27,000 the previous two months — not the makings of a renaissance. Obama has set an ambitious target, considering that manufacturing jobs have been steadily declining for nearly two decades.
12. Consolidate a "whole bunch" of federal agencies dealing with business issues into one new department led by a secretary of business.
1. Create 12 million jobs in four years. Romney sets a modest bar with this oft-heard pledge; economists think about that many jobs or more will be created regardless of the outcome Tuesday. To add 12 million, the workforce would have to grow by an average of 250,000 a month, a reasonable prospect when there is no recession. Since July, the economy has created an average of 173,000 jobs a month.
2. "I'm not going to raise taxes on anyone," a pledge also rendered as, "I will not raise taxes on the middle class." Romney promises not only to keep the Bush tax cuts for all but to bring down rates a further 20 percent. He'd also eliminate the capital gains tax for families making below $200,000 and cut the corporate tax to 25 percent from 35 percent. Although the promised cuts are clear enough, just how he would pay for them is a mystery. He's talked about reducing some deductions and exemptions in the tax code but won't say which.
3. Repeal Obama's health care law, his clarion call since the GOP primaries. Rolling back the massive overhaul, now that it has had more than two years to sprout roots, could be a massive undertaking of its own. Some of his promises in this area are showmanship, such as his pledge to issue waivers from the law to all 50 states on the first day of his presidency. Many states don't want out of the law, and it can't be dismantled with the mere stroke of his pen anyway. In any event, the law's repeal is one big promise he will be judged on, especially by the tea party activists who were suspicious early on about his conservative credentials.
4. Balance the budget by 2020. Vital specifics are lacking from this pledge, such as which big federal programs he'd cut and how else he would save money when also wants to cut taxes, increase military spending and restore more than $700 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years.
5. "We will achieve North American energy independence by 2020." By that, he means the U.S. would have its energy needs completely met by its own resources and those of Canada and Mexico. As with Obama's pledge to cut oil imports by half, Romney's promise has become conceivable — if still a steep climb — thanks to technology and market forces that have brought vast reserves of natural gas, along with other energy sources, within reach.
6. Quickly approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, delayed by Obama because of environmental concerns, as part of the push for more energy supply.
7. Label China a currency manipulator. Central to Romney's pledge to get tougher with unfair trade practices. The move would set the stage for broad trade penalties and could lead to a trade war between the two huge economies.
8. Overhaul immigration laws. The features of Romney's plan are foggier than Obama's, but he favors a strengthened system of tracking illegal immigrants through their U.S. employers, supports completion of the U.S.-Mexico border fence and opposes any broad-based move to establish a path to citizenship except for those who served in the armed forces. He promises to achieve this overhaul before the two-year work permits granted by Obama expire, and he would honor those in the meantime. Promises those who study legally in the U.S. that "if you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here— so we will staple a green card to your diploma."
9. Protect Medicare for those in or near retirement, change it for future retirees. Starting in 2022, retirees could choose to buy their own health insurance, with voucher-like payments from the government, or stay with traditional Medicare. Questions persist about whether the payments would be sufficient and whether traditional Medicare would remain as comprehensive as now.
10. Turn Medicaid over to the states with block grants, a huge change to a major program. Sure to cause a donnybrook in Congress — and an important step for conservatives who want states overall to gain more authority and flexibility from Washington.
11. Seek freer trade with Latin America and other parts of the world, a leading element of Romney's job-creation pledge.
12. Day One alone: "Start the process of repealing Obamacare" with waivers, cut off federal money for Planned Parenthood and the U.N. Population Fund, reinstate the policy banning federal money to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information, designate China a currency manipulator, "reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life," take "bold action" to create jobs, and — perhaps after lunch?— "do everything in my power to end these days of drift and disappointment."