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.

With no time to catch his breath, Mr. Obama designed and won approval for a stimulus bill that slowed job loss and helped restore confidence. He engineered a rescue of the auto industry. The steady experts he put in charge of economic policy, notably Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, navigated between the Democratic Party’s left, which urged populist measures that would have been expensive and ineffectual, and an obstructionist Republican Party, which at times seemed content to inflict great harm on the country. The industrial-policy element of the recovery plan, favoring high-speed rail where it’s not needed and electric cars that consumers won’t buy, wasted a lot of money. But on balance the administration, working with the Federal Reserve, succeeded in its core mission. The rebound of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 6,626 in March 2009 to above 13,000 today is no comfort to the many Americans who remain unemployed or poorer than before the crisis. But it reflects a recovery of the faith upon which every economy depends.

Mr. Obama’s second signal accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, will go a long way when fully implemented toward ending the scandal of 45 million Americans being without health insurance. It also could slow the unaffordable rise in health-care costs, though it is hardly a full answer to that challenge.

Mr. Obama advanced the leading civil-rights struggle of the day when he ended the military’s discrimination against gay men and lesbians and declared his support for same-sex marriage. He took an important step against climate change by promulgating, and persuading industry to support, ambitious fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks.

Mr. Obama continued Mr. Bush’s generous campaign against HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. He prodded states toward useful reforms in teacher accountability and school choice. Though he failed to champion immigration reform, his Justice Department stood up to the worst harassment of immigrants in Republican-governed states such as Arizona and Alabama. He peppered his Cabinet with leaders of substance, including Hillary Rodham Clinton at State and Arne Duncan at Education, and he nominated and won confirmation for two well-qualified Supreme Court justices.

OVERSEAS, TOO, there were successes and failures. Mr. Obama’s administration vigorously pursued al-Qaeda and tracked down its leader, Osama bin Laden. He supported a popular uprising against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. He recognized the importance of bolstering allies in Asia against Chinese bullying, and he opened trade talks with Asian nations intended to encourage an alternative to China’s state-sponsored, often corrupt capitalism.

On the other hand, he was hesitant and inconstant in responding to the two greatest and most unexpected foreign-policy opportunities of his presidency: the pro-democracy uprising in Iran in 2009 and the Arab Spring two years later. Mr. Obama kept the United States on the sidelines as Syria plunged into civil war, costing more than 30,000 lives — most of them civilians — and breeding extremism that may destabilize a half-dozen countries. By not securing a presence in Iraq after ending the U.S. military mission, he failed to capitalize on America’s decade-long commitment to that nation, and his ambivalence regarding Afghanistan — sending more troops, but with artificial deadlines and no clear commitment to their success — promises trouble in coming years.

Mr. Romney has criticized that record, often persuasively. But his policy prescriptions — on Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, to name three — hardly differ. Neither he nor his running mate has foreign-policy experience. And his unscripted moments have not inspired confidence: calling Russia America’s greatest foe, for example, or delivering intemperate outbursts while the United States was trying to negotiate an exit for a human rights activist in China or when its diplomats in the Middle East came under attack. Mr. Romney has offered no evidence that he would do better in the world.

WHICH BRINGS us to the third test: What kind of case has Mr. Romney made for himself? He promises, appropriately, to focus on recovery and job creation. Though his political résumé is thin, his business record is impressive, and he has managed a disciplined campaign. Perhaps his administration would be more pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric suggests. Surely he understands the risks of further widening the deficit. Would “moderate Mitt” occupy the White House?

The sad answer is there is no way to know what Mr. Romney really believes. His unguarded expression of contempt for 47 percent of the population seems as sincere as anything else we’ve heard, but that’s only conjecture. At times he has advocated a muscular, John McCain-style foreign policy, but in the final presidential debate he positioned himself as a dove. Before he passionately supported a fetus’s right to life, he supported a woman’s right to abortion. His swings have been dramatic on gay rights, gun rights, health care, climate change and immigration. His ugly embrace of “self-deportation” during the Republican primary campaign, and his demolition of a primary opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for having left open a door of opportunity for illegal-immigrant children, bespeaks a willingness to say just about anything to win. Every politician changes his mind sometimes; you’d worry if not. But rarely has a politician gotten so far with only one evident immutable belief: his conviction in his own fitness for higher office.

So voters are left with the centerpiece of Mr. Romney’s campaign: promised tax cuts that would blow a much bigger hole in the federal budget while worsening economic inequality. His claims that he could avoid those negative effects, which defy math and which he refuses to back up with actual proposals, are more insulting than reassuring.

By contrast, the president understands the urgency of the problems as well as anyone in the country and is committed to solving them in a balanced way. In a second term, working with an opposition that we hope would be chastened by the failure of its scorched-earth campaign against him, he is far more likely than his opponent to succeed. That makes Mr. Obama by far the superior choice.

Who gets your endorsement? The Post invites readers to make their case.

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt will be online at 11:30 a.m. ET Friday to discuss The Post’s endorsement and the presidential election.Submit your questions before or during the discussion.