With sobered expectations, Obama for president

Is the country better off than it was four years ago? We believe the answer is yes and that Barack Obama deserves re-election.

Four years ago, before Obama’s election, the United States was sliding into its deepest economic downturn since the 1930s. The economy is still in the doldrums, and the jobless rate remains far too high. But the financial system is not flirting with collapse, and few Americans wake up in fear of another Great Depression.

Presidents do not stage-manage the U.S. economy. If politicians of either party knew exactly how to deliver unbroken prosperity, they would have done it a long time ago. This is less of a science than economists like to admit, in part because there’s no second United States to serve as a control group.

Obama played a very bad hand well. The maligned Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2009 stimulus bill and such smaller measures as the Social Security payroll tax cut may well have kept the nation from falling off a cliff.

When the economy is sinking, deficit spending is not reckless – though failing to cut deficits after recovery would be monumentally irresponsible.

The deficit problem is less about either Obama or Mitt Romney than it is about their respective parties. Historically, Democrats have pandered to beneficiaries of middle-class entitlements; Republicans have pandered to hatred of taxes.

It seems obvious that, long-term, both parties will have to back down. Entitlements must be cut and taxes increased to chip away at America’s increasingly dangerous national debt.

There’s been too little acknowledgment of this reality among Democrats – but absolutely none among the bulk of Republican lawmakers and primary voters.

Their hard-line opposition to any tax increase is a big reason Congress is gridlocked over the deficit. The election of a Republican president – who wouldn’t touch defense spending – seems bound to empower them.

Foreign policy has also been one of the president’s strengths.

His diplomacy has been more artful, to say the least, than George W. Bush’s. And he has not been shy about asserting American interests: The fates of Moammar Gadhafi and Osama bin Laden demonstrate Obama’s willingness to use military force when necessary.

Also to the president’s credit is the health care reform package that promises, for the first time, to extend medical insurance to nearly all Americans.

Much of the package was pioneered by Romney himself as governor of Massachusetts. Trapped by GOP primary voters’ demands for a “severe conservative,” Romney has pledged to start immediately undoing the federal reforms if he is elected.

Another Obama achievement – praised by both parties – has been to encourage sweeping education reforms on the state level. His Race to the Top initiative, which offered prize money to reform-states, has been brilliantly successful.

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Its most senior members are the conservatives Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. But its oldest member is a 79-year-old liberal, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s a good chance that the next president would pick her successor.

The center of gravity on the court already lies somewhat right of center, with Kennedy being the swing vote. A Democratic replacement for Ginsburg probably wouldn’t shift the equilibrium much. But a Romney appointee could tip the court far to the right.

Romney has proved to be a formidable challenger and would hardly be a disaster if elected. But we believe the United States will be again better off, four years from now, if Obama remains in the White House.