But he has been a very good president. For all the promises on which he has fallen short, he has kept many others. He has provided steady, pragmatic leadership in trying times, and he has set the stage for a stronger, more sustainable America to emerge. His chief failing has been his inability, in the face of entrenched opposition from the Republican Party, to bring the Congress and the nation together around solutions to our major problems. He will need to do better in the next four years, but he must be allowed to finish the job.
Looking back at the crises President Obama faced when he took office is not an exercise in shifting blame to his predecessor. It is a matter of making a clear assessment of what Mr. Obama has accomplished during his term. The economy today is disappointing — gross domestic product grew just 2 percent in the latest quarter, and job gains, while consistent, have been anemic. But the economy four years ago was terrifying. The nation was shedding 800,000 jobs a month; the financial system was collapsing; the housing market had cratered; and the centerpiece of America's industrial economy, the auto sector, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Moreover, it's not as if the economic shocks of 2008 came after a period of great prosperity. On the contrary, real economic gains for the middle class had been virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, deficits had soared as the result of tax cuts tilted toward the rich, a massive and unfunded expansion of entitlements, and two wars. The nation had squandered the surpluses of the Clinton years and built an economy on the shaky foundations of a housing bubble.
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the president's $840 billion stimulus package did not immediately restore the economy to robust growth. Recoveries after financial crises have typically taken years longer than those after ordinary business-cycle recessions. Nonetheless, the stimulus stopped the job losses and set the stage for modest growth. Its only fault was that it was too small and spent too much on tax cuts rather than the kind of infrastructure projects that put people to work immediately and pay dividends for years to come. The stimulus was unpopular, and so were President Obama's decisions to bail out Chrysler and General Motors and the financial industry. But without them, we might easily have slipped into a second Great Depression.
President Obama's record is not just about stopping the bleeding, it is about setting the stage for a more sustainable, competitive American economy. His Race to the Top initiative has unleashed a wave of school reform far greater than what was achieved by the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind. It has fostered incentive pay for teachers and charter schools, even in union-dominated states like Maryland. The president's policies have made college loans more affordable so that the nation has a chance to once again lead the world in educational attainment.
His health care reform legislation expands coverage to millions and prevents many of the insurance industry's abuses. But it also enables experimentation with alternative methods for providing and paying for health care, which eats up a far larger percentage of our economic output than in any other industrialized nation while producing mediocre results.
And President Obama's energy policy is leading to investments in developing technologies like wind, solar and biofuels while also focusing on the mundane work of increasing efficiency — including a doubling of auto fuel economy standards by 2025.
In foreign affairs, Mr. Obama has similarly recalibrated a strategy gone awry. He renounced torture, ended the war in Iraq and refocused our efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere on stopping al-Qaida. Thanks to those efforts, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are many other top al-Qaida leaders. Had Mr. Obama not reversed the ideology-driven foreign policy of the previous eight years, he never would have been able to mobilize the international coalitions that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi and supported crippling sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, President Obama has stood up for equal pay for women, repealed "don't ask, don't tell," voiced support for gay marriage and appointed two well-qualified justices to the Supreme Court. He has not tackled climate change or immigration, and he has failed in his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Nonetheless, his record is, on the whole, commendable.
But presidential elections are not merely referendums on the incumbent's record. The are a choice between two leaders for the next four years, and the contrast between Mr. Obama's vision and that of Republican Mitt Romney is stark.
At times, Mr. Romney has appeared eminently moderate, as in his years as Massachusetts governor when he supported universal health care, gay rights and the belief in man-made global warming, or in his first debate with President Obama in which he acknowledged the need for regulation in a free market economy. At times, he has taken on the guise of the "severely conservative" Republican, as when he outflanked his GOP primary rivals on the right, or when he selected tea party darling Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
We can't be sure which Mitt Romney would occupy the White House. But we can evaluate his campaign promises. He has supported changes to Medicare that would erode the strength of the system for current enrollees and leave future recipients short of the care they need in old age. He would transfer control of Medicaid — which provides nursing home care and aid to the disabled in addition to health care for the poor — to the states, and severely cut federal support in the process. He would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, which would all but guarantee a reversal of Roe v. Wade and more conservative judicial activism along the lines of Citizens United. And he would repeal Obamacare, leaving millions without health insurance and eliminating any realistic mechanism for reining in the soaring costs of health care.
To be fair, we have been disappointed that President Obama has not laid out a more specific agenda for his second term. In fact, he has only begun to address his plans for the next four years at all in the last two weeks, and he has offered few details beyond a desire to resurrect the type of "grand bargain" on the budget that has eluded him thus far, and to work on a bipartisan compromise on immigration.
Even so, a comparison of the two candidates' positions on the budget is illustrative of the choice before us. Mr. Obama wants to reduce the budget deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years by relying on $2.50 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue. Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has proposed to cut income tax rates across the board by 20 percent and cut taxes on capital gains, estates and dividends — some $5 trillion in reductions in all — while increasing defense spending by $2 trillion. Yet he promises to balance the budget within the decade through a combination of spending cuts and the elimination of loopholes and deductions.
Neither candidate has said much about what programs he would cut or what loopholes he would eliminate. But Mr. Romney's promises give him a much deeper hole to dig out of than Mr. Obama. His math simply doesn't add up, and his plans would inevitably require sharp and abrupt spending cuts. That would have a devastating effect on the economy, particularly in Maryland.
Mr. Obama's election didn't usher in a new, post-partisan era in Washington — far from it. The president was confronted at every turn by a Republican Party more intent on seeing his defeat than doing the right thing for the nation. During the last four years, Republicans were willing to push the nation to the brink of defaulting on its debts and to a downgrade of its credit, and once they gained the power to filibuster in the Senate and the majority in the House of Representatives, they blocked any further efforts to stimulate the economy or to take a balanced approach to reducing the deficit.
We endorse President Obama for re-election, with this caution: We can't afford four more years of gridlock. Perhaps Republicans will be more willing to work with a second-term President Obama, perhaps they won't, but the buck stops with him. He will need to demonstrate renewed leadership and do whatever it takes to work with Congress to bolster the economy, tackle the debt, fix the immigration system and address the threat of climate change. Our future depends on it.