The Election's Most Important Question: How Big Should Government Be?

Forget the private equity sideshow. The real issue for November is the huge gap between President Obama's and Mitt Romney's visions for Washington.

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Few issues illuminate the presidential candidates' wildly divergent views on the appropriate size and role of the federal government more than taxes and spending.

For President Obama, fiscal policy is a means for preserving the country's safety net; promoting education, environmental protection, and other social goals; raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help to pay down the budget deficit and address income inequality; and boosting the domestic economy through manufacturing tax breaks and infrastructure programs, with the hope that both will create jobs.

"We don't need to be providing additional tax cuts for folks who are doing really, really, really well," Obama said at Northern Virginia Community College earlier this year, after the release of his fiscal 2013 budget. "Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep investing in everything else--education, clean energy, a strong military, care for our veterans? We can't do both. We can't afford it."

The president's view of government is considerably less radical than Mitt Romney's. Obama would keep the government largely intact and recognizable to those it now serves. A hallmark of his budget is the preservation of entitlement programs for children, seniors, and the poor.

Romney's fiscal proposals lay out a much different future, with a smaller, streamlined federal government that turns a handful of programs over to the states and that ultimately provides a social safety net for fewer people. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said that his fiscal 2013 budget blueprint, which the presumptive GOP presidential nominee backs, prevents the safety net from becoming a "hammock" that "lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."

If elected, Romney has agreed to sign Ryan's budget brainchild. It calls for deep spending cuts that would eliminate some government agencies, turn Medicaid and food stamps into block-grant programs, and overhaul Medicare by giving its patients a subsidy to either buy private health insurance or stay with the traditional fee-for-service program. On top of this, the Romney-backed Ryan plan would slash tax rates across the board for individuals and corporations--paying for the lower rates by eliminating unspecified tax breaks.

"I do not, for one moment, share my opponent's belief that our spending problems can be solved with more taxes. You do not owe Washington a bigger share of your paycheck," Romney recently told supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. "Instead of putting more limits on your earnings and your options, we need to place clear and firm limits on government spending."

Romney's limits on federal spending and lower taxes versus Obama's Keynesian-style spending and higher taxes on the wealthy offer contrasting prescriptions for jump-starting the economy, spurring growth, and managing the deficit. Each is betting that his vision will work.


At a time when voters list jobs and the economy as their primary concern, talking about taxes may seem a bit off topic.

Still, taxation will take center stage in the weeks immediately after the election, when trillions of dollars in tax provisions will expire, from the Bush-era cuts to breaks for businesses. The across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, mandated by last year's Budget Control Act will also be on the agenda.

The winner of the presidential contest will influence these decisions. If Obama is reelected, he will  try to sway the contentious congressional debates over these issues in the lame-duck session. If Romney wins, Republicans in Congress may try to delay the major decisions until after his inauguration and the start of a new session in January.

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Nancy Cook is a correspondent for National Journal.

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