At its core, the debate over how much the U.S. spends on defense gets down to this: What is it that America should be defending against?
There are plenty of potential security threats on the horizon, not to mention an unfinished war in Afghanistan.
The size and shape of the defense budget go a long way toward determining whether the U.S. can influence events abroad, prevent new wars and be ready for those it can't avoid. It also fuels the domestic defense industry in ways that affect the vitality of communities large and small across the country.
Obama wants more restraint in military spending while Romney favors expansion. Obama also wants more focus on Asia-Pacific security, reflecting China's military modernization. But that and other elements of military strategy could come apart if Washington doesn't find a way to avoid automatic budget cuts starting in January.
The job market is brutal and the economy weak. Nearly 13 million Americans can't find work; the unemployment rate has been higher than 8 percent for more than 40 months. A divided Washington has done little to ease the misery.
The economy didn't take off when the recession ended in June 2009. Growth has never been slower in the three years after a downturn. The human toll is staggering. Forty percent of the jobless, 5 million people, have been out of work six months or more — a "national crisis," according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Wages aren't keeping up with inflation.
Obama wants to create jobs by keeping taxes low for everybody but the wealthiest and with public-works spending, clean energy projects and targeted tax breaks to businesses. Romney proposes further cuts in tax rates for all income levels; he'd also slash corporate rates, reduce regulations and encourage oil production.