Romney, Obama sharply disagree on role of government

The two presidential candidates repeatedly clashed over the role of government Wednesday night, marking a clear ideological divide between the Chicago progressive and the Massachusetts moderate.

Government policy should focus on “maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals,” said Gov. Mitt Romney, when moderator Jim Lehrer asked him about government’s proper role.

“I do think there are differences,” said President Barack Obama, referring to his policy disagreements with Romney.

Government’s first role is to keep people safe, he said, but “I also believe that government has the capacity — the federal government has the capacity — to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity, and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.”

“The genius of America is the free-enterprise system, and freedom … but as Abe Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together,” Obama added, while urging a series of government spending on teacher training and green-technology energy initiatives.

Obama, however, described government-directed programs as free-enterprise or voluntary agreements.

His Obamacare health reform law, he insisted, “wasn’t a government takeover of health care. It was the largest expansion of private insurance.”

The federal government’s revamp of state education programs, he continued, “wasn’t a top-down approach. … [It was] ‘We’ll give you money if you initiate reforms.'”

Romney challenged each program as a government-directed project.

Government should improve education by sending money to parents so they can choose among competing schools, he said. “All federal funds, instead of going to the to the state or to the school district … [will] follow the child and let the parent and the child decide.”

“The right course for America’s government … is not to become the economic player, picking winners and losers,” he said.

“The right answer is not to have the federal government take over health care and start mandating to the providers across America, telling a patient and a doctor what kind of treatment they can have,” he said.

Romney also dinged Obama on energy, saying twice that Obama spent $90 billion on green energy projects. “You don’t just pick the winners and losers — you pick the losers,” he quipped.

The GOP challenger repeatedly praised free enterprise, even citing the constitution’s limits on government’s power.

“Look behind us,” Romney said, point to the backdrop which carried text from the nation’s founding. “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents.”

“We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. … Second, in that line that says we are endowed by our creator with our rights, I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country.”

Government regulation is “the wrong way to go,” said Romney. “The private market and individual responsibility always work best.”

His deputies echoed the message after the debate.

Obama “doesn’t understand the American free-enterprise system. He doesn’t know how it works,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

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