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Five key issues omitted from first two debates

 

The first two debate meetings between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have covered a broad array of issues, but some of the most pressing matters they would encounter as commander in chief were left unmentioned.

Related: Sharp exchanges at second debate

Among the topics covered by the two prime-time outings include taxes, the economy, jobs, Medicare, Social Security, education, immigration, Libya, China, energy, gun rights, contraception, abortion rights, and a whole host of other issues. 

As President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparred at the Hofstra town hall on Tuesday, voters who are still undecided told NBC News that they didn't like all the bickering. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

To be sure, the format of each debate and the actions of both Romney and Obama, in part, limited the issue scope in each debate. Romney frequently overrode the interjections and questions of moderator Jim Lehrer in the first debate, and the town-hall format of Tuesday evening's debate allowed undecided voters to pose questions in a discussion guided by CNN's Candy Crowley.

Moreover, some of these topics could work their way into the third Obama-Romney showdown, which is scheduled for Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. That debate will focus primarily on matters of foreign policy. 

With that in mind, here's a look at the top five issues left unaddressed so far through the first two presidential debates: 

John Moore / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk over each other as they answer questions during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York.

FISCAL CLIFF

Regardless of the outcome of next month's election, Obama or Romney would almost assuredly encounter a potential fiscal crisis immediately upon being sworn into office. 

While the topics of taxes, spending and entitlements were rampant during the first two debates, the so-called "fiscal cliff" looming at the beginning of 2013 presents a far more beguiling challenge for either candidate come January.

The fiscal cliff is a shorthand way of referencing the cocktail of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set to take effect at the beginning of next year, the by-product of legislative gridlock which economists warn could do serious damage to the recovery.

Robert Gibbs, Senior Advisor for the Obama Campaign, joins The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd to talk about the President's performance in the debate, and touches on the President's debate remarks on the 9/11 Libya attacks.

Obama and Romney have each talked about their tax proposals, which would presumably compensate for the expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts at the end of this year, along with a two-year payroll tax cut initiated by Obama. 

But the next president would have to juggle tax reform -- a politically tricky issue in its own right -- with having to reach an agreement to avert the effects of the "sequester." 

When lawmakers reached a last-minute deal in the summer of 2011 to raise the nation's borrowing limit and avert default on U.S. debt, they included a provision that would trigger a series of deep cuts -- including steep reductions to defense spending -- set to take place at the end of 2012. 

Romney campaign advisor Kerry Healy talks about Mitt Romney's stance on women's issues and whether Tuesday's debate performance will convince women to vote for him.

These automatic cuts were designed to be politically unpalatable in order to provide an automatic incentive for a bipartisan "supercommittee" of lawmakers (which was also established by the debt deal) to reach a consensus plan to address the nation's mounting debt. 

Romney has been an ardent critic of those automatic defense cuts and made frequent mention of them on the campaign trail. But he didn’t reference them at all in his first two debates versus Obama. 

These looming challenges are unlikely to reach resolution in the lame-duck Congress. That means Obama or Romney, as president, will be forced to confront not just a single portion of their fiscal proposals, but rather, a series of them linked together. Such a consequential legislative fight could consume the first few months of 2013, if not longer.

President Barack Obama attacks former Gov. Mitt Romney's tax-cut proposals in the second presidential debate of 2012.

HOUSING MARKET

A troubled housing market and financial crisis related to over-extended mortgages are the root cause of America’s current economic headache, but the topic received scant attention during the first two debates. 

Obama took steps at the beginning of his first term meant to support struggling homeowners, and outlined an updated proposal in February -- but neither had much effect. One of Romney’s earliest events during his bid for the Republican nomination, too, was in a neighborhood full of foreclosed homes in Nevada, one of the states hit hardest by the housing collapse. 

But neither candidate paid lip service to the full severity of the housing market except as an aside in a larger discussion about the regulations on lenders included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank regulatory reform law. 

Obama accused Romney of wishing to repeal that law, which the president asserted would eliminate rules on subprime housing loans. 

"Dodd-Frank correctly says we need to have qualified mortgages, and if you give a mortgage that's not qualified, there are big penalties, except they didn't ever go on and define what a qualified mortgage was," Romney responded. "It's been two years. We don't know what a qualified mortgage is yet. So banks are reluctant to make loans, mortgages." 

Viewers looking for more details about how Obama or Romney would handle Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac – the troubled mortgage-lending giants that were taken into government conservatorship in 2008 -- also might have been disappointed in the first two debates. Neither candidate explained how they would move the troubled companies off the government’s books. 

IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

The winding-down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan received more attention during the lone vice presidential debate than they did during the first two meetings between Romney and Obama. 

Both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan flub some of the specifics in their vice presidential debate.

American combat troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003, and Obama has begun the process of ending the wars in each country -- something of which he has been quick to remind voters during the debates. 

Romney has sought to distinguish himself from Obama on both theaters, focusing his criticism on the pace at which Obama has withdrawn troops from both countries, and Obama’s decision to set timelines by which American combat troops would leave both Iraq and Afghanistan.

 "America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence,” Romney said earlier this month at a foreign policy speech.

 On Afghanistan, Romney has also sought to paint stark differences between himself and Obama by arguing that Obama prematurely drew down “surge” troops from Afghanistan earlier this fall. Romney said he would have kept them there a few months longer, through the height of the fighting season. 

Still, both Obama and Romney share the same expressed goal of all troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014. 

EUROPE'S FISCAL CRISIS

The debt crises beguiling Greece, Spain, Italy and a host of other European nations have imperiled the health of the European Union and its currency, the Euro. Moreover, much of Europe has plunged into a double-dip recession, the effects of which have imperiled the American economic recovery.

 But the still-serious situation in Europe has been little more than a punchline for the candidates through the first two presidential debates. 

“If the president were re-elected, we'd go to almost $20 trillion of national debt. This puts us on a road to Greece,” Romney said in Tuesday night’s debate, repeating a line that should sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the Republican presidential nominee’s stump speeches this year.

 So serious was the situation in Europe that the president took to the White House briefing room in early June -- the same remarks in which he suggested the private sector was “doing fine” relative to the public-sector economy -- to warn about the impact the European debt crisis could have on the American economy.

“In the meantime, given the signs of weakness in the world economy, not just in Europe but also some softening in Asia, it's critical that we take the actions we can to strengthen the American economy right now,” Obama said on June 8. 

But the situation in Europe received no attention in the first two debates, even though the EU was just awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in part for its perseverance through a politically-trying period in its history.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

Obama announced in June that his “evolution” on gay rights was complete, and that he supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. 

Romney responded at the time by reiterating his opposition to gay and lesbians’ ability to marry while calling it a “tender” issue that deserved sensitivity. 

The president’s announcement in June was heralded as historic, but also a politically shrewd move to energize young voters and his LGBT supporters, while also putting Romney in the difficult position of trying to strike a centrist note while not alienating the socially conservative voters who make up a core constituency of the GOP. 

But given the magnitude and politics of that June announcement, it is striking that the topic of same-sex marriage didn’t come up in the first two debates. (Even on another social issue, abortion and contraceptive rights, Romney stressed he believes "every woman in America" should have access to contraceptives.)

The absence of the conservative red meat on social issues is made all the more striking by comparing the first two debates of 2012 to the first debate of 2004, when President George W. Bush played up his opposition to same-sex marriage and used Sen. John Kerry’s more moderate stance against the Democratic nominee. 

"I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I think it's very important that we protect marriage as an institution, between a man and a woman," Bush said at his Oct. 13, 2004, meeting with Kerry. 

"I proposed a constitutional amendment. The reason I did so was because I was worried that activist judges are actually defining the definition of marriage, and the surest way to protect marriage between a man and woman is to amend the Constitution." 

But Kerry also stressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, too. 

"The president and I share the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "But I also believe that because we are the United States of America, we're a country with a great, unbelievable Constitution, with rights that we afford people, that you can't discriminate in the workplace. You can't discriminate in the rights that you afford people."