Four years ago, Barack Obama succeeded where Democrats long have struggled. On Election Day, he carried such states as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. His message resonated, that one of hope and change, of remaking the culture of Washington, the candidate of a new generation ready to apply what works to the country’s problems. And now? The president faces a struggle for re-election, Mitt Romney benefiting not just from the troubled economy but also from the grandiose promises of Obama the candidate.
Washington wasn’t going to change. If anything, Republicans grasped the stakes: Continued wrangling and gridlock would reflect poorly on the president, his pledge proving empty. So disappointment burdens the president’s pursuit of a second term. Yet he shouldn’t be measured merely against his soaring words. What matters are his real accomplishments and the direction he proposes for the years ahead.
On both those counts, he has succeeded far more than his critics contend. We recommend the re-election of Barack Obama on Nov. 6.
Recall how dire things were when he arrived at the White House, the economy plunging downward, at a pace much worse than almost anyone thought, contracting 8.9 percent in the final quarter of 2008, and then another 6.5 percent the following three months. The job losses were staggering, the contraction the most severe since the Great Depression. The blows to housing, construction and finance made certain the recovery would be slow and halting, many coping with diminished assets and heavy debt, all of it setting back demand.
In response, the Obama White House and a Democratic Congress acted as aggressively as the political landscape would allow. They enacted a stimulus package that prevented something much worse and set the economy on a path of growth. They rescued the auto industry. They strengthened regulation of Wall Street.
Ohioans should know the makeover of General Motors and Chrysler avoided what would have been calamitous, liquidation, no less, the ripple effect upending lives far removed from automakers and their suppliers.
The accomplishments on the president’s watch haven’t stopped there. The list is impressive and bears repeating, if just in part:
• Health-care reform, a landmark advance toward universal care, long sought, finally achieved.
• A restructured student loan program and expanded Pell Grants.
• A modernized food-safety system.
• The repeal of the corrosive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against gays in the military.
• A dramatic increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
• Greater clarity and accountability in the way credit-card companies operate.
• An end to restrictions on stem-cell research.
• A deal to cut $1.5 trillion in spending, or half the amount proposed by Bowles-Simpson.
• Limits on mercury and other toxic emissions, rules 20 years in the making.
For its part, the stimulus package wasn’t just about easing the blow of the recession. It looked forward via the first substantial commitment to research and development of green technology and through the Race to the Top, a competitive grant program applauded by Republicans and Democrats, to spur reform in public schools.
In foreign affairs, the president has elevated the country’s image abroad, in part, through working more with other nations, notably in pressuring Iran. The president brought balance and principle to the fight against Islamic extremists, ending formally the use of torture, hunting down and killing al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden. He ended the war in Iraq and has launched the exit from Afghanistan. After a bumpy beginning, he has managed effectively relations with China, welcoming its emergence yet engaging in strategic pushback.
Has all of this been achieved flawlessly? Hardly. The president lacks the political skills of a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Errors have been many, difficulties remain. They include a failure to address more directly the battered housing market. The drone program proceeds without the necessary oversight.
What is telling about a presidency is its tilt, its direction, spirit and priorities. Thus, to those who argue the president lacks a plan for a second term: Look at the foundation that has been set. He has used the levers of government to bolster the economy, investing in education, innovation and health care, understanding the essential role of the public sector in competitiveness. Those tasks are not complete. They would continue.
The president has governed more from the middle than many give him credit. Consider the Republican ideas in health-care reform, or the Race to the Top, or the tax cuts in the stimulus. He has stated his readiness to compromise on long-term deficit reduction. The problem has been Republican resistance to tax increases as part of a realistic and responsible approach.
That commitment to compromise, or governing, is crucial to addressing other pressing challenges such as illegal immigration and climate change. It has been present in his nominations to the Supreme Court, tapping those who recognize the value of settled law in areas ranging from the Commerce Clause to the rights of women to make choices about their health care.
Of late, especially, Mitt Romney has argued that he is eager to bring together Republicans and Democrats. The sale becomes harder to make in view of his courting the ascendant far right of his party the past six years. He has described himself as “severely conservative.” He talks often about tax reform and the moral obligation to address the country’s debt. Yet he eschews the necessary step of raising additional revenues to complement spending reductions.
Romney would be more credible as a candidate if on one occasion he had told the far right something it did not want to hear. Instead, the man who once was a moderate, appealingly pragmatic, has massaged positions, ducked and performed full flips, saying little about his leading achievement as the governor of Massachusetts, health-care reform, which served as a model for the president. The obvious question then surfaces: What does he really think? What would be the tilt of his presidency?
The doubts deepen in view of his vague policy proposals. He pledges to create 12 million new jobs. He barely hints about how he would do so, except to highlight a five-point plan that is part familiar rhetoric of a challenger (bash China and promise energy independence) and part echo of what the president already has set in motion, increased exports and improved schools.
Rommey still hasn’t explained how an additional $2 trillion in defense spending would aid the country strategically. He favors a tougher posture in foreign affairs without explaining how his stance would differ from the George W. Bush years, when pugnacity did not translate into greater influence and power.
No question, Romney is a smart, successful financier, a man of faith and accomplishment. What troubles is his public character, the opportunistic shifts and more. It is unacceptable that in seeking the presidency, he refuses to share his income tax returns in a way comparable to what he required of his running mate, Paul Ryan.
Finally, Romney cannot walk back easily his comments at a Florida fund-raiser about 47 percent of Americans refusing to take responsibility or care for their lives. He either was telling the crowd what he thought it wanted to hear, or he believes what he said. Either way, the words aren’t worthy of a president.