MUCH OF THE 2012 presidential campaign has dwelt on the past, but the key questions are who could better lead the country during the next four years — and, most urgently, who is likelier to put the government on a more sound financial footing.
That second question will come rushing at the winner as soon as the votes are tallied. Absent any action, a series of tax hikes and spending cuts will take effect Jan. 1 that might well knock the country back into recession. This will be a moment of peril but also of opportunity. How the president-elect navigates it will go a long way toward determining the success of his presidency and the health of the nation.
President Barack Obama is better positioned to be that navigator than is his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
We come to that judgment with eyes open to the disappointments of Mr. Obama’s time in office. He did not end, as he promised he would, “our chronic avoidance of tough decisions” on fiscal matters. But Mr. Obama is committed to the only approach that can succeed: a balance of entitlement reform and revenue increases. Mr. Romney, by contrast, has embraced his party’s reality-defying ideology that taxes can always go down but may never go up. Along that road lies a future in which interest payments crowd out everything else a government should do, from defending the nation to caring for its poor and sick to investing in its children. Mr. Romney’s future also is one in which an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth resides with the nation’s wealthy, at a time when inequality already is growing.
Even granting the importance of the fiscal issue, a case might still be made for Mr. Romney if Mr. Obama’s first term had been a failure; if Mr. Romney were more likely to promote American security and leadership abroad; or if the challenger had shown himself superior in temperament, capacity and character. In fact, not one of these is true.
Start with the first-term record. We were disappointed that Mr. Obama allowed the bipartisan recommendations of his fiscal commission to wither and die and that he and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to seal a fiscal deal in the summer of 2011. Mr. Obama alienated Congress and business leaders by isolating himself inside a tight White House circle that manages to be both arrogant and thin-skinned. Too often his administration treats business as an obstacle rather than a partner. He hardly tried to achieve the immigration reform and climate-change policy he promised.
But economic head winds and an uncompromising opposition explain some of these failures — and render that much more impressive the substantial accomplishments of Mr. Obama’s first term.
FOREMOST AMONG these is the president’s leadership in helping to steady an economy that was in free fall when he took office. It may be hard to recall how frightening that time was, as the nation’s finances were close to seizing up. President George W. Bush had taken the first steps away from the abyss, winning approval from a balky Congress for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), but nonetheless he had bequeathed a mess to his successor.