Voters have long favored President Obama over Mitt Romney for handling terrorism and advancing the interests of the middle class. Romney, however, has consistently enjoyed a wide advantage on only one issue: the nationâs gaping budget deficit.
But now the Republican presidential nominee, who tried to bolster his deficit credentials by picking budget hawk Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, is at a significant risk of losing the edge on the policy area that voters have trusted him most on. It is an issue that dominated the political debate last year and will again immediately after the election.
Two recent national polls show a narrow gap between Romney and Obama on the deficit. Romney seems to have lost his advantage after weeks of being pilloried by Democrats for his policies, which they claim would cut taxes on the rich, raise taxes on the middle class and cost seniors more for health care.
Conservatives and independent analysts, meanwhile, have been increasingly questioning whether Romneyâs proposals are detailed enough to justify their claims.
The cumulative effect seems to be taking a toll on Romneyâs reputation as someone who will fix the nationâs debt burden. Just as voters are beginning to pay close attention to the election, the fiscal problems of Europe are dominating the headlines, and the end-of-year âfiscal cliff,â with a recession-inducing series of tax hikes and spending cuts, comes into focus.
Obama and Romney each claim to have a plan that will the cut the debt by about $4Â trillion over the next decade, which would be roughly enough to stabilize the size of the debt compared with the overall economy.
To close the gap, Obama calls for tax hikes on the wealthy, spending cuts and modest changes to entitlements. Romney relies solely on spending reductions.
Although Americans support deficit reduction, polls show they do not favor cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare. They do, however, support raising tax rates on the wealthy to close the budget deficit .
âEven if they agree with the approach he says wants to take [to reduce the deficit], they donât believe heâs going to follow through,â said Jonathan Burks, deputy policy director of Romneyâs campaign.
Critics point out that Obama has far from a perfect record on the debt. The country added about $4Â trillion to its debt during Obamaâs term, in part because of the recession, and he failed to live up to his promise to halve the deficit. He also didnât fully embrace the report of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission he created, a frustration for many of the presidentâs supporters in the business community.
âThe president would attract more CEOs if heâd adopt Simpson-Bowles,â said Marc Benioff, an Obama campaign co-chairman and chief executive of salesforce.com. âIâve told the president that I felt that is the right plan. He should reconsider his position.â
The president last summer sought and failed to strike a âgrand barganâ to trim $4Â trillion from the federal debt in negotiations, an achievement that his political advisers have said would have provided a major boon to his reelection campaign.