When Parents convened a diverse group of mothers for a luncheon roundtable a few months ago, it seemed like there would be plenty of time for President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to clarify their hopes and plans for the next four years. But in the whirlwind of corn-dog eating, baby-kissing, and finger-pointing, it's been hard to filter out the campaign rhetoric and get down to how their policies would affect families.
Fix Our Schools
Obama and Romney both think that our education system is letting children down. Obama believes we should focus on the achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries. "Many schools are crumbling, and other nations are outpacing us," he told us. A significant part of the solution, he says, will come from continuing his 2009 Race to the Top initiative, which has spurred 46 states to raise academic standards and is designed to address shortcomings in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. "Rather than burdening our states with mandates, we've got to challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that meet local needs and still bring our curriculums to the 21st century."
His ongoing commitment will also include finding funds, even in tough times. "When state budgets started shrinking and teaching jobs were on the line, we helped state and local governments with the resources to support more than 400,000 educator jobs," he says, in addition to expanding Head Start, which provides early education to low-income kids. And to achieve his goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, he's reformed student lending and expanded Pell Grants.
Romney believes that "fiscal responsibility" is the spark schools need to improve. "Despite spending more than just about every other country in the world, we lag on virtually every measure of results," he says. "To that end, we must dramatically expand parental choice over the education their children receive and unleash the power of innovation and technology to drive improvement. We must call on states to set high academic standards, hold schools and teachers accountable for results, and ensure that families and taxpayers have accurate information about school performance and spending. And we must reward effective teachers for their excellence in he classroom so that others like them will be attracted into the profession."
While recognizing the importance of early-education programs (but not mentioning Head Start specifically), Romney says, "we can more effectively spend education funding, ensuring that we reward achievement and advance best practices."
Protect Us From Environmental Hazards
When questioned about his top environmental concerns, Romney said he'll work to strengthen environmental protections—and for a time he did focus on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in Massachusetts during his tenure as governor. "I believe there are very serious threats to our environment, both natural and man-made," he says. We asked about his position on chemical reform, which was a concern of our moms, but he did not address the issue specifically. "As president, I will make every effort to safeguard the environment, but I will also be mindful at every step of protecting the jobs of American workers." It's worth noting that the Safe Chemicals Act was approved in a Senate committee in July, but every Republican on that committee voted against it. In order for the issue to gain traction, it will need bipartisan support.
Romney was direct with us when we asked him to clarify his past remarks about whether climate change is caused by pollution. "I believe global climate change is happening and that human activity contributes to it," he says. "But it's not clear to what extent." Romney doesn't think that national mandates will help. "The best solutions lie in adopting market-based approaches. Successfully addressing the challenges of climate change requires harnessing the power of innovation."
Obama cites his environmental record on fuel-efficiency standards, clean- energy investments, and reaching agreements with emerging countries to limit emissions. "I have taken some of the most significant steps in decades to reduce pollution," he says, including the "first-ever national standards to cut down on mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollution from power plants—the largest remaining source of several hazardous toxins." This will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of asthma, he asserts. "When we put in place new commonsense rules to reduce air pollution, we create new jobs building and installing all sorts of pollution- control technology."
Obama stresses that making sure families and communities are protected from chemical toxins is one of his environmental goals. Indeed, his administration has championed the chemical reform legislation that he says would "ensure we're using the best available science and that unacceptable risks haven't been ignored." Without Republican support for the bill in Congress, he says he will work within existing authority to encourage the use of safer chemicals and reduce the amount of pesticides in the foods farmers grow.
Rev Up The Economy
Both candidates believe that their policies will pay off for families. "I know times are tough for parents, but we're making progress," says Obama. "What's at stake is whether we will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement, or whether we go backward to the same top-down, trickle-down economics that caused the crisis in the first place." The solution is investing in "education, infrastructure, and innovation that have always been the pillars of an economy that creates jobs and grows from a growing middle class," he says.
"Within weeks of taking office, I cut taxes for 95 percent of working families, helping our economy get going. Since then I've cut taxes for the typical middle-class family by $3,600 and cut taxes for small businesses 18 times, helping them grow and hire." But additional tax reform is also required, he contends, including his proposed Buffett Rule, which would ensure that no household making more than $1 million a year would pay a smaller percentage of income in taxes than a middle-class family. "Governor Romney and his Republican friends in Congress believe in a tax plan that would cut taxes for the richest Americans, on top of making the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent. But they can't pay for a plan like that without raising taxes on the middle class."
Not so, says Romney. "A major element of my tax-reform plan is cutting tax rates by an additional 20 percent across-the-board, ensuring that fundamental tax reform benefits every single tax-paying American," he says, which will "allow middle-class families to keep more of what they earn and will help them better afford the rising costs of daily necessities like food, gas, and energy." He also wants to repeal Obama's health plan, which he says will bring savings for families.
"Middle-class moms are struggling each day to make ends meet," says Romney. "My Plan for a Stronger Middle Class creates 12 million jobs and more than doubles our current rate of economic growth. I will increase energy production, provide Americans with the educational skills to succeed, open new markets for American goods and services, and cut runaway government spending."
Target Inefficiency And Polarization
"Government waste is rampant," Romney tells us. If elected, his administration will "go through the budget line by line and ask two questions: 1) Can we afford it? 2) If not, should we borrow money from China to pay for it? In this time of fiscal crisis, I will work to improve the productivity and efficiency of the federal government itself." Romney was not more specific about such cuts. "We'll work to empower states by sending programs that are currently controlled by the federal government back to the state level."
Obama, too, says that zapping waste continues to be a critical issue. "That's why I signed legislation that brings annual domestic spending to the lowest levels as a share of the economy since President Eisenhower was in office," he asserts. "We have no choice but to redouble our efforts to scour the budget for waste and make tough decisions about ending funding for programs that aren't working."
He pointed to the Affordable Care Act's potential to "strengthen Medicare by getting rid of billions of dollars of waste, fraud, and unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies."
Not surprisingly, both candidates agree there is not enough cooperation between the two parties. "When I was governor of Massachusetts, the legislature was composed almost entirely of Democrats, yet we found common ground," says Romney. "As president, I will bring this type of approach to governing."
Obama says that a lot of Republicans think that compromise is a dirty word. "But I disagree. Moving our country forward requires compromise. So this campaign is still about ordinary folks who believe that in the face of great odds, we can make a difference for our country."
Reduce The Role Of Government
Many of the mothers who helped formulate The Parents Platform believed that the government is too involved in our lives. "We need a smaller, smarter, simpler government," says Romney. "The American people, not government, make this country great. We can address this by acknowledging that the federal government must stop doing things that the American people cannot afford."
While agreeing that government can't fix all of society's problems, Obama paraphrases Abraham Lincoln to make his point: "Through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves." He goes on to say, "That's how we built this country—together. We constructed railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge. We instituted a minimum wage and rules that protect people's bank deposits—together. And together we're making health insurance more affordable and Wall Street and Main Street play by the same rules."
But in one area, there is little common ground between the two: the issue of abortion. Although Romney's views were more nuanced in the past, he couldn't have been clearer with us. "I am firmly pro-life and oppose abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother," he tells us, adding that he would not do anything to prohibit access to "many methods of preventing pregnancy that do not harm or terminate human life."
Obama, who is pro-choice, says his Affordable Care Act also gives women "more power to make their own choices about their health care," including birth control. " I don't think we need a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health-care decisions on behalf of women."
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.