Obama for President

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More out of a sense of the better of two flawed choices, The Journal today will swallow some reservations and endorse Barack Obama for re-election as President. You play the hand you're dealt, the old saying goes, and what we, and voters across the country have got this year is a decision to make, one that has to cut through the fog of misinformation and distortion that settled over electioneering for the nation's highest office. That may not be so different than any other election year, but it does get wearying. Mitt Romney and many Republicans seem to think that the answer to every economic and social issue is a tax cut. Barack Obama and the Democrats spend no small amount of time questioning the motivations of successful financiers, Wall Street-based or not. The outcome is that the fresh breezes of some creative, bipartisan thinking that seeks to attack both the growing unequal distribution of income occurring in the country as well as celebrating a culture of entrepreneurship and upward mobility - along with some honest talk about how out-of-control entitlement programs like Medicare are to be overhauled - would be welcome.

Instead, we get the platitudes and scare tactics that make reforming programs like Social Security and Medicare to evolve with the changing times - because it's not the 1930s or the 1960s anymore - into political third rails that politicians touch at their peril. Moderate, middle of the road politicians who try to work across the aisles are demonized by their party's own grassroots bases, even as most polls would show the general public yearns for more leaders willing to work in a pragmatic, let's-fix-the-problem-collaboratively sort of way. Maybe the looming "fiscal cliff" - the ending of the Bush-era tax cuts and mandated spending cuts struck in the wake of last year's debacle over raising the nation's debt ceiling limit, might force this lurch towards compromise, but much of that will hinge on the election, and the message it sends to the remaining lawmakers.

Every election year is often described as "critical" and most do rise to that, although it could be argued that the election four years ago, as the nation was lurching into the start of the financial meltdown that gave us TARP, the bank bailouts, the stimulus and double-digit unemployment levels, was more "critical." Whatever. There's plenty going on this year to keep you awake at night, and we'll just hit the highlights here.

This is a critical election in that the pathways to the future being offered by both candidates are strikingly different, and in supporting Mr. Obama we are not dismissing Mr. Romney's approaches out of hand. The President, this time around, is the status quo figure - ready to tinker with the reach and breath of government programs, but not seeing the need for massive changes, now that health care reform has been achieved. Domestically, Mr. Obama would be wise to make as his top priority right-sizing the governments spending plans. We'll assume he understands this imperative intellectually, but needs to show far more skill at the personal relationship-building that is essential for the wrenching changes needed to pass the often Byzantine customs of Congress. Meanwhile, Mr. Romney argues for a fundamental reduction in the size of government, for lowering tax rates, to cutting spending on just about everything except for Defense. The two candidates also come at the vexing "social" issues of abortion, gay rights and contraception from different viewpoints.

A list of issues in play in this election might include the following:

taxes and spending

economic growth

foreign affairs and America's place in a changing world

energy policy and its relationship to the environment

immigration

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those pesky social issues which never seem to go away long after they should have, as well as healthcare and education reforms

We'll say at the outset that Mitt Romney is qualified to be President and his passion is clearly about economic growth and jobs. That expertise is timely, and while we aren't sure about every prescription he has offered so far, it's safe to say that some of the more extreme proposals - like cutting taxes by 20 percent - probably wouldn't survive contact with Congress or simple reality, assuming he also wants to make meaningful cuts in the nation's fiscal deficit. He has also shown himself to be flexible and ready to bob, weave and compromise. It's unfortunate that Mr. Romney hobbled himself early on by disavowing a creative health insurance scheme he pioneered while governor of Massachusetts, as well as striking a more harshly overall conservative tone than we think reflects his true thinking. Political expediency may explain some of this, but trying to square the circle at two different moments in the election cycle beyond a certain point calls into question the depth of his convictions. Some of this is inevitable in an election as long-running and complex as a presidential campaign. Exactly how, for example, Mr. Romney would actually repeal "Obamacare" - or parts of it - is hard to figure, unless Republicans capture 60 U.S. Senate seats for a filibuster-proof majority. The irony is "Obamacare" is strikingly similar to the health care plan he helped author in Massachusetts, which by and large has worked well there. While the president's health care plan is hardly the end of the road in this area, it's some kind of a start, and does leave room for states to experiment with their own solutions, because more needs to be done to rectify this perilous cost curve.

The main area where President Obama gets high marks from us is in foreign policy. It's been a rough week for the President in this arena, with accusations flying back and forth regarding whether the consulate in Benghazi, Libya should have been better protected and over whether the White House should have better understood the likelihood of a "terrorist" attack there. Libya, much like nearby Syria, is going through the throes of revolutionary change along with other parts of the Middle East, and there are few clear-cut guidelines everyone can agree to. Getting involved militarily there right now, as we start a long drawn-out pullback from Afghanistan, would be near-madness. The president was right to resist calls to both help the Libyans with more than logistical support, and to go-slow on helping Syrians seeking to overthrow the unloved dictatorship of Bashir Assad, until we know better how that military aid will be used. The problem in Syria, of course, is that a vacuum of sorts is being created, where extremist Islamic jihadists will hijack an initially secular insurgency, leaving us with the real possibility - indeed, likelihood - that post-Assad Syria will be a hostile place for the U.S. and a breeding ground for terrorism and upheaval. No good choices here.

Both Libya and Syria are dwarfed in complexity by the issue of Iran and its push for a nuclear weapon. This is indeed a scary situation that is fraught with peril, not the least because of the heightened nervousness emanating from Israel and the possibility it could take unilateral action to stop Iran's nuclear program - a mindboggling mistake, in our view. Here again, Mr. Obama has played, we think, a skillful hand - after an initial outreach was rebuffed, he has imposed a tightening set of economic sanctions that may ruin Iran financially unless they wake up from their nuclear delirium. We think that Mr. Romney's close alignment with Israel could prompt a more forceful and premature reaction that would have disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, we agree with the President's goal of seeking to engage more with Asian nations and especially to develop a more coherent approach towards China, which is really the whole game. Getting China right matters. By comparison, Afghanistan is something of a distraction, at this point, albeit a deadly and violent one that has resulted in much heroic sacrifice by U.S. troops for an Afghan government that has not shown itself worthy of it. After an initial push to salvage something from the long running stalemate, Mr. Obama seems to have concluded that a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, while training and turning things over to the Afghan army and police, makes geostrategic and economic sense. He made a mistake is publicly setting a date for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The time has come to accelerate our departure from that benighted country and cut losses as soon as possible. Let the Karzai regime figure it out from here. Enough U.S. blood and treasure has been spilled there.

When it comes to the economy - what most polls say is the most important issue for voters, not surprisingly - our view is simply that it could have been a lot worse. Four years ago, as we alluded earlier, the nation was about to make an epic plunge into economic darkness, with household name corporations at risk and millions of people about to lose their jobs. Whether it would have been better to have let market forces determine the outcome of that is something we shall never know, but we have a funny feeling that there would have been something of an uproar if the only buyer available for General Motors would have been the Chinese or Saudi Arabian governments. And that's what might have occurred if the auto industry wasn't bailed out, along with a bunch of big banks - and meanwhile the cataclysm unleashed would have sent unemployment figures up to Depression-era, 25 percent levels.

One can argue about "Obamacare," the president's signature health care bill, but we think the time has come for an overhaul of how we as a nation finance healthcare, and the relatively modest - and in many cases Republican-based ideas that underpin it - are steps in the right direction. The next task is to tackle the sources of the nation's fiscal malaise - huge entitlements like Medicare - and here is where, despite the beating they have taken in the media, the Romney-Ryan team has some ideas worth hearing.

Obama's big weakness so far has been his tone-deafness to the art of political dealing and his lack of leadership in confronting and working with Congress. Here is where he needs to grow in his second term if he hopes to go down in history as a transformational president.

Hope and change is over. Mitt Romney, now that he has finally managed to shake off the dead hand of his party's activist, Tea Partyesque base and run as the moderate he is and was all along, has seen his chances for election boosted. If only he had been able to articulate those stances earlier, he might well have gotten our nod. But the question of who is the real Mitt Romney is now an issue.

For reasons based in guiding the country through difficult times both in the economy and foreign affairs, we endorse Barack Obama for President, with the caveat that he needs to address some shortcomings and to move away from some of his silly campaign rhetoric and return to the pragmatic moderate we think he also wants to be.

To whoever wins - good luck. You're going to need it.


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