President Obama is campaigning with a new weapon in his hand – a little blue booklet that amounts his answer to Mitt Romney's "five point plan."
To critics on the conservative side, the new Obama blueprint for a second term contains little that would count as a big idea or a new idea. Rather, they say it's a symbol that Mr. Obama is waking up, belatedly, to the notion that voters want something from a candidate other than criticism of one's opponent.
It's true that Obama's "new economic patriotism" document, subtitled "A plan for jobs & middle class security," doesn't contain many new proposals. What it may accomplish is simply to offer a rebuttal to Mr. Romney's message that he has a plan and Obama doesn't.
Obama's aim may be to persuade undecided voters of two things. First is that he has some sensible ideas for a second term, including joining Romney in a few. (Obama partially embraces increasing domestic oil and gas production.) The second is that his Republican rival has plans that could prove risky for the economy and the middle class. ("I will never turn Medicare into a voucher," Obama says prominently in the document.)
Both candidates are distilling their agendas into bullet points designed to appeal to the relatively small pool of independent voters who remain up for grabs.
In many ways, the contrast between the two can be summed up in familiar terms: The Republican calls for smaller government, while the Democrat defends a larger or more activist federal role.
Here's a look at a report that amounts to Obama's answer, point by point, to Romney's five-point plan.
Obama says he wants to see the US create 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016. The lead item on his agenda here is corporate tax reform (cutting rates, while offsetting that revenue loss by closing loopholes in the current tax code). The president calls for a new tax credit "for companies that bring jobs home."
He also urges training 2 million workers through new partnerships between community colleges and employers, and creating a network of business-university "manufacturing innovation institutes" to keep US industries on the cutting edge.
In all, his goal of 1 million new jobs sounds like a slight boost from the recent pace of job creation. (Obama's booklet notes that half a million manufacturing jobs have been added in the past 2-1/2 years.)
Manufacturing isn't a category in Romney's five-point plan, but his plan also seeks to boost this important sector of the economy. Romney has his own version of corporate tax reform, which he says would lure employers (US and foreign) to set up more production in America.
"Trade that works for America," is one of Romney's agenda items. Like Obama, he says he'd seek to curtail "unfair trade practices" by China and other nations. Where Obama has an enforcement effort under way, Romney implies he'd go further in getting tough on China – naming that country a currency "manipulator" on Day 1 of his administration.
Where Obama emphasizes willingness for government to make strategic investments, Romney says that investing in companies is "the wrong way to go." He supports basic science research, but isn't backing Obama-style innovation institutes. He calls for streamlining some 47 US job-training programs, while focusing them "on building valuable skills that align [job seekers] with opportunities."
In practice, it might prove hard for either candidate to take too hard a line against China. Romney might follow through on his pledge to step up pressure, but a keynote of US policy predating Obama has been the goal of drawing China closer into the fold of advanced economies. Too much confrontation might risk progress on that front.
"Energy made in America"
Obama says he'll offer what Romney doesn't: Progress toward the goal of energy independence while also minding environmental concerns. He calls his plan an “all-of-the-above” strategy.
It includes "opening up millions of acres for exploration and development," including in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. But it also includes continued investment in renewable sources and in energy efficiency. Obama notes his already-announced plan to double the fuel economy of cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. He also wants to extend tax credits that support clean-energy manufacturing.
Romney's version of an all-of-the-above plan puts more emphasis on fossil fuels, less on the risk of global warming. (Obama's booklet contains a reference to "steps to protect our climate," Romney has an 88-page document that uses the word "climate" in the context of jobs, not ecosystems.) Conservatives say Obama is a faux friend of domestic energy production that could lower US energy bills and, in Romney's vision, help North America become "energy independent" within eight years.
Romney's plan would streamline permitting for domestic energy production. He would "eliminate regulations destroying the coal industry." And unlike Obama, his plan includes a pledges to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline for Canadian tar-sand oil to get to US refineries.
"Growing small businesses"
If candidates like to kiss babies, a second rule of thumb is they like to extend verbal hugs to small business. Obama says he'll cut taxes for firms that hire new workers or increase wages. He wants to extend a tax break that lets businesses immediately write off the costs of new plants and equipment.
He notes that small businesses pay up to 18 percent more than large firms do for health insurance. His solution: Expand a the health-reform tax credit to cover half of small businesses’ health care costs in 2014, and offer access to group rates.
Romney says America's employers are with him in calling for tax and regulatory reforms that promote job creation. Where Obama says his tax policy would extend Bush-era tax rates for 97 percent of small businesses, Romney says he'd keep taxes low for 100 percent – including those who pay in the top individual income-tax brackets.
He says he'd "repeal and replace" Obama's health-care reforms, saying employers view the rules as a disincentive to hire. He also would seek legislation to "protect workers and businesses from strong-arm labor union tactics."
Obama wants to recruit 100,000 math and science teachers, saying "we can out-compete China and Germany by out-educating them." He wants to cut the pace of tuition growth in half, in part through education tax credits and incentives for colleges to restrain their costs.
In public schools, he calls for spending to prevent teacher layoffs (a goal of his American Jobs Act, which has languished in Congress). He would expand the Race to the Top incentives for school reform and exempt reform-oriented states "from the worst mandates of No Child Left Behind, like incentives to teach to the test, so they can craft local solutions."
Romney says Obama pumps more money into the US education system without doing enough to promote needed reforms. Obama, for his part, has suggested that Romney would undercut needed education funding.
Romney's "skills to succeed" agenda includes greater transparency about school performance and making Title I and IDEA funds portable, to enable low-income and disabled students attend schools of their choice. He would offer incentives to states to enhance school choice for parents. He says he'd attract "great teachers" using block grants, and by paring back on certification rules.
The president says his plan calls for deficit reduction of $4 trillion, compared with a baseline of continuing current tax and spending policies over a 10-year budget window. Obama calls it "balanced" deficit reduction that cuts "spending we can’t afford" while asking well-off households to pay a little more in taxes.
His plan, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office, is forecast to hold public debt relatively stable, at 76 percent of gross domestic product in 2022. Federal deficits are forecast to fall by mid-decade, but then start edging up, reaching 3 percent of GDP in 2022.
"The plan makes sure millionaires aren’t paying lower tax rates than many middle-class families," he says. Obama says ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represents money "saved," that can be used for a mix of deficit reduction and "putting Americans back to work rebuilding roads, bridges, runways, and schools here in the United States."
Romney supporters say that Obama is more of a tax hiker than a spending cutter. (Some $1.9 trillion in his deficit reduction plan comes on the tax-revenue side, and large additional chunks come from a related decline in interest payments, and from ending the wars.)
Romney calls for a sharp slowdown in federal spending, to 20 percent of GDP. Federal spending under Obama's plan over the next decade would be in the range of 22 to 23 percent of GDP.
Romney says his spending restraint can be achieved through steps such as downsizing the federal workforce through attrition, block granting programs to states, and cutting non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent. Just as Republicans question Obama's fiscal plan, skeptics wonder whether Romney will really achieve his desired spending cuts, and whether Romney tax reform will bring in his expected revenue.
Romney has called for a 20 percent cut in income-tax rates, but hasn't spelled out what deductions and loopholes he will close to fulfill a pledge that the changes result in no loss of revenue for the government.
On this point, Obama's booklet makes a controversial claim. It cites the bipartisan Tax Policy Center to claim that Romney's tax plan "raises taxes by more than $2,000 on middle class families with kids." But that isn't something the Tax Policy Center actually said. The center has argued that Romney's plan is math-challenged (and illustrated this point with an example that involved middle-class tax hikes). The center has been explicit that it did not intend to imply that Romney's plan is to raise middle-class taxes.
Obama's newly compiled plan covers two other points: health care and retirement security. But these amount to mainly an affirmation that his 2010 health-insurance reform law is working, and that he will protect traditional Medicare rather than experiment with a voucher-style alternative.