So I'll go through a number of the topics I think you care about, and topics you should care about even if you don't. For each, I'll make a quick comment on the official positions, then look at the amusing controversies and the actual consequences of one winning versus the other.
The biggest and toughest topic is the economic sustainability of our government, which is currently running huge deficits every year which make the total debt of our nation grow apace. I will hold this most difficult topic till last.
Unable to pass the Dream Act, Obama has signed an executive order protecting non-citizen Americans from government attack.
Romney has criticized Obama's executive order for not being a comprehensive solution, which of course is true. Romney's decision not to promise to repeal this executive order indicates he will leave it in place.
So on immigration, nothing will change regardless of who is elected.
In fact, creating new industries, new companies, and new jobs is a job for professionals (like venture capitalists) and college students (like Mark Zuckerberg). The only role for government bureaucrats is to stay out of the way. Staying out of the way was the policy followed by Bill Clinton during the takeoff of the web, with excellent results. Most economists came to realize that a centralized command and control government cannot effectively create jobs after the Soviet Union fell, though some of the most popular economists still believe in government action. I hypothesize that these economists are most popular among people who believe in government action as a basic philosophical tenet, regardless of actual merit.
Obama has acted repeatedly to prevent private enterprise from creating jobs. Examples include:
In fact, fracking is the most important technological breakthrough of the decade. It is creating new jobs, not just to get the gas and oil, but throughout the society: companies are building new manufacturing plants here in the US to take advantage of the now-suddenly-very-cheap natural gas. Without the fracking industry, our economic recession would be deeper and go longer. It serves as another reminder that private enterprise is the engine that creates new industries, new jobs, and new opportunities -- not government.
Romney would, as a minimum, pass no more laws inhibiting economic recovery. A major criticism of Romney is that he would not have bailed out GM, thus causing the loss of thousands of jobs in the car industry. My personal assessment is that Obama handled GM correctly: he pushed the company through bankruptcy, evicting all the executives and breaking all the union contracts and wiping out the holders of GM bonds. This bankruptcy process transformed GM into a new company with so few liabilities that it could be successful again. The $25B the government loaned to GM was the least important part of the deal, and probably would not have been needed had the entire financial system not been broken because of the financial system collapse.
But note that saving GM is not the same as creating new businesses and new jobs: it just prevented the loss of some jobs (though not as many as you might expect: without GM, more cars would be sold by Ford and the American Toyota factory and the American Honda factory, etcetera).
2 years ago, preventing the loss of existing jobs as Obama did at GM, was probably as important as supporting the creation of new jobs (though remember, while Obama was saving GM he was also shutting down all oil drilling in the Gulf, which destroyed existing jobs. So even then he was not trying to save jobs, he was pursuing more narrow political goals. This is a reminder that in an economy run by government bureaucrats, the people with the strongest lobbies get the special privileges and the taxpayer largesse. While the Gulf oil drilling industry is larger than GM, it is composed of lots of small companies. They no had politically powerful union like the UAW with GM to protect them. Had the UAW been running the oil wells, they would not have been shut down, and had GM been a bunch of small companies without political leverage, they would not have been saved).
Regardless of what should have happened 2 years ago, at today's point in the recovery, encouraging the creation of new jobs with the reduction of regulations, as Romney would attempt to do, is probably more important than saving the GMs of the world. All of America's GMs have been saved, we need to think about future industries, not past industries, at this point.
Your mother will also explain that another aspect to jobs is retraining people and getting them ready for jobs. Romney would cut the funds given to the states for retraining workers. Obama would continue to fund these programs. Which is more important, creating new jobs or training workers to fill those jobs? I could make a complex argument that shutting down national government spending on retraining would not shut down retraining, but the argument is too subtle for this discussion. Instead I will make the following observation: while retraining and job creation are both important, the jobs must be created before any worker -- retrained or otherwise -- can fill them.
The practical consequence of Obama versus Romney on job creation: at the end of the day, in the short term presidents have very little control over job creation. The US economy is a huge thing, all the effects of all the actions by the president described above are small in comparison. Presidents do have a huge effect over the long term. Of all the actions described above, the one with the most long term consequences was Obama's lawsuit against Boeing to shut down their new plant. This will cause companies to think harder and take longer to decide to open new plants. Even more ironically, it will encourage them to open new plants in other countries rather than risk retaliation from the National Labor Relation Board. It will never be possible to measure the harm done to the economy by this action, because the harm will be measured in factories not built, which we do not know how to count.
Government played no role in the big improvement in global warming outlook. Rather, the big improvement came from replacing coal with natural gas extracted with fracking. This is another reminder that unplanned, unexpected new innovations generated by private enterprise, that reduce costs both economically and ecologically, offer the only serious hope of solving problems when the only plan the government has is to impose hardship upon the people. The ironic consequence is that Romney the unbeliever, in encouraging private enterprise to do the unplanned and unexpected, will protect the environment somewhat better than Obama.
An ideal candidate could do even better ... but no ideal candidate is running so this is the choice. As a more philosophical point, the reason so many people refuse to acknowledge a risk from global warming is that the leaders of the global warming community never just say that it is a risk: they immediately follow up by explaining that we must immediately spend trillions of dollars and accept diverse hardships to prevent a catastrophe 50 years from now. Upon hearing that, many people turn off. If instead of demanding trillions of dollars in costs right away, people concerned with global warming explained that we could probably postpone the problem for an additional 50 years (enough to ensure good technological solutions) with a couple billion dollars a year in geo-engineering costs, it would be an easy sell. Global warming would not even be a topic of conversation any more, it would be taken care of in its own time by the people of the future who have much better tools to combat it.
Romney wants to repeal Obamacare, replacing it with something with no specifics whatsoever.
In fact, both ObamaCare and the system it replaced are so badly broken it hardly makes a difference. The current argument over which-poor-sucker-pays-the-outrageous-costs is misplaced. The important question is, why has the cost of health care grown so much faster than any other cost in the history of the nation? (uh, the cost of fighter planes may be growing just as fast, and there are interesting lessons in that fact, too lengthy to explain here). If costs went down in health care the way they go down in computers, there would be no issue. If quality went up while costs held constant, as in the car industry, and as in almost every other major industry in the nation, it would be a minor issue.
To really fix the health care system, one must start by wreaking havoc on the privileged elites that extract large profits from the current system. Such privileged elites include the American Medical Association, which has been the most successful union in American history, using the regulatory powers of the US government to coerce rich revenue increases for its members for about a century. The privileged elites also include the lawyers, who extract a rich tax on health care through current liability law (and impose a vastly larger tax through the hidden costs that are incurred to minimize the lawyer tax; examples of hidden costs I personally understand suggest the hidden costs of liability law are at least a factor of 10 greater than the visible costs).
More generally, throughout the health care industry, the incentives imposed on the participants by current law and regulation ensure that each player will push (often for perfectly honorable reasons) for higher prices with negligible improvement in quality. Neither Obama nor Romney will address the real questions.
In practice, the health care law will stay about the same regardless of which candidate wins: Romney cannot repeal the law because of the Democratic Senate. No action can be taken until 2015, when the full consequences of the new law will come to be understood since they will have been in effect for a year. Since 2015 is only a year away from the next presidential election, and nothing happens in an election year, nothing effective will be possible until 2016. Since no one talks about the serious questions at all, the chance of effective action in 2016 or 2017 is negligible as well.
As for maintaining a strong military, Romney has promised to increase spending on defense. Various hints suggest that Obama would reduce spending on defense if he could. Obama's attitude is more sensible on this matter. Currently we spend more on the military than all of the countries we could have a war with combined. The US fleet of 11 supercarriers (the smallest of which is larger than the largest of the 9 non-American carriers in the world) could easily defeat the fleets of Russia, China, North Korea, India, France, Great Britain, and Japan all combined. A sensible plan would cut the defense budget by 30%.
In practice, nothing will change. Obama cannot cut the budget because of the Republican House, Romney cannot increase the budget because of the Democratic Senate.
In the medium 15-25 year term there is the looming financial disaster when the government's spending plans wreck the nation.
And in the long 50-100 year term there is global warming and its consequences.
I am often amazed by people who fiercely believe we must achieve an ecologically sustainable society yet do not believe that we must as achieve an economically sustainable society. If the society is not economically sound, leaders will arise that promote ravaging the earth's resources to quell the economic hardship. You can see that in Europe today, as economic hardship trumps ecological policy.
In any event, the US is now on an economically unsustainable trip to catastrophe. The costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (which I henceforth refer to as, the "Entitlements") are each individually growing faster than the economic output of any advanced nation in history. The growth of these programs is automated in the laws defining them: in the absence of new law, each is guaranteed to grow until the nation collapses, in a shattering blow that will make the Great Recession look like an enchanted period of growth. To learn about our future, read what is happening in Greece today.
This year, the debt has grown so large that it is larger than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the entire nation, i.e., all the wealth created by the US in one year is not enough to pay off the debt. This has complicated consequences. To put it so briefly that it may not be understandable:
Currently, trying to get the economy working again, interest rates are being held lower than is sustainable. As the economy strengthens, interest rates have to rise, which means that the government must pay more interest on the debt. When the debt gets as high as it is now, over 100% GDP, then when interest rates go up, we must suck so much money out of the economy to pay the extra interest that it impedes the nation's economy, forcing the economy back into sluggishness.
Historically, when the US had high debt loads (after WWII), we grew out of it: if the debt went up 2% a year, but the GDP went up 4% a year, the debt would shrink as a percent of GDP. But now the debt is so large that it will prevent us from growing the economy as fast as the debt grows. So we are now already trapped in a vicious cycle: to grow the economy fast enough to shrink the debt, we must first shrink the debt enough so the economy can grow fast enough.
In his 4 years of office, Obama has given only lip service to the idea that we must make the government economically sustainable. His big proposal is to tax the rich. Alas, even rich people do not have wealth growing fast enough to cover the costs. Obama's closest approximation to sincerity was starting the Erskine-Bowles Commission to develop a deficit-reduction plan. The moment they delivered their plan, which had everything Obama wanted (such as higher taxes on the rich), Obama rejected it (presumably because it had the things that are necessary, like reductions in the Entitlements).
Romney made significant fixes to the budget in Massachusetts when he was governor, suggesting he is both sincere and capable in addressing this problem. He also worked with a Democrat controlled legislature in Massachusetts, suggesting he might even be able to work with the Democratic Senate (though this is not certain: he could be as stymied by the Senate as Obama has been stymied by the House).
There are several sideshows in the budget debate. Do not be confused by them.