Suspense over the too-close-to-call presidential race has partly obscured the fact that Americans on Tuesday will choose between two dramatically different visions of government's proper role in our lives. The philosophical gulf between the two nominees is wide, even if the vote totals may be razor-thin.
With record numbers of people on food stamps and other assistance, President Barack Obama emphasizes "we're all in this together" - code for sweeping government involvement. His campaign theme song is "We Take Care of Our Own." Romney wants smaller government, including fewer regulations - rejecting Obama's contention that they're needed after the meltdowns in financial and mortgage markets and a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. His theme song is the individualist anthem, "(I Was) Born Free."
For all their philosophical differences, neither man has hit Americans between the eyes with the painful truth of what it will take to tame deficit spending, driven by the public's demand for low taxes and high services.
This year's voters are unlikely to make big changes in Congress. After dramatic swings in the past three congressional elections, and ongoing assessments of the tea party's influence, power may not end up shifting on Capitol Hill for a while. The fiercely divided Congress may continue to block major presidential initiatives, regardless of who's in the White House, unless there's the type of bipartisan breakthrough that has proven elusive.
An Obama win presumably would keep the government roughly on its current course. Congressional Republicans would be unable to rescind his biggest domestic achievement, "Obamacare," which eventually will require everyone to have health insurance.
Writ large, Obama's approach to governing is a new generation of the New Deal and the Great Society. The federal government tries to balance interests such as energy exploration and the environment, private enterprise and consumer protection.
Romney's approach echoes Ronald Reagan's declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.
In a January GOP debate, Romney said: "Government has become too large. We're headed in a very dangerous direction. I believe to get America back on track, we're going to have to have dramatic, fundamental, extraordinary change in Washington to be able to allow our private sector to once again re-emerge competitively, to scale back the size of government."
Romney later said, "I was a severely conservative governor" of Massachusetts (a label at odds with his actual record there).
It's unlikely that a Romney presidency would reshape the federal government to the extent such rhetoric suggests. Like many politicians, Romney is more expansive with his promises than with details for achieving them.
He vows to slash spending and put the nation on a path to balanced budgets, for instance. Pressed for details, Romney offers few beyond ending the tiny federal subsidy to public television and "Big Bird."
Obama has gone a bit further in specifying how he would reduce the deficit. Unlike Romney, he would raise taxes on the wealthiest.
In a 50-50 nation, however, no politician wants to be the first to forcefully tell voters why it's impossible to achieve their three-pronged desire of keeping taxes low, keeping government services level and balancing the budget.
No matter who is president, the huge domestic challenge of 2013 will be to persuade Congress to compromise on tax and spending issues.
Many GOP lawmakers are adamant about keeping tax rates lower for everyone - including the richest households - than they were in Bill Clinton's presidency, which produced the last balanced budget. Congressional Democrats insist that any deficit-reduction plan include increased revenues, from the wealthiest taxpayers if no one else, along with spending cuts.
The package of major tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to hit on Jan. 1 - the "fiscal cliff," which could start a new recession -- will pose a huge challenge to whoever wins Tuesday.
Because of congressional gridlock, a Romney presidency might produce more dramatic changes through the other branches of government. Romney repeatedly has said he'd like to see a reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. He might be able to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court to fulfill that wish.
It's hard to know how U.S. society, so accustomed to the abortion status quo of four decades, would react to states suddenly outlawing the procedure.
Hurricane Sandy is a reminder of how different political philosophies can affect people at more mundane, day-to-day levels. Romney has suggested shifting much of the responsibility for emergency management from the federal government to the states. That approach might have severely tested New Jersey this fall. But conservatives grow weary of looking to Washington to solve problem after problem.
In unguarded moments, politicians sometimes show their clearest philosophical leanings. Romney's much discussed remarks at a private fundraiser — criticizing the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes — suggested he sees a world of givers and takers. Such societies, he says, are in danger of having the government-dependent takers overwhelm the job-creating givers.
Republicans, on the other hand, pounced on Obama's non-scripted "you didn't build that" comment, his contention that people who built businesses had help, from teachers, family and other supporters - and sometimes the government. Obama said he was noting that successful businesses rely on government roads, schools, water, police protection and other tax-paid amenities.
The "you didn't build that" controversy underscored philosophical differences that voters will choose between Tuesday. Obama and Romney look at the same set of facts — in this case, successful businesses — and seize on different aspects.
The election winner may have a hard time pushing his agenda through a divided Congress. But voters have a vivid choice about what that agenda should look like.
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