Few things have been as disappointing about Barack Obama's first term as his bid for re-election. It has been thoroughly underwhelming to watch the candidate of Hope and Change embrace politics as blood sport. During the 2012 campaign, Mr. Obama has spent more time attacking Mr. Romney than laying out a vision for his second term commensurate with the issues facing America.
Mr. Obama has yet to propose a credible solution to fix America's structural deficit or level with the American people about how he plans to keep our entitlement system in tact for the next generation without cutting benefits or raising taxes beyond the wealthiest Americans. He ignored the sensible recommendations of his bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit commission in favor of fire-breathing populism. Real Politik supports returning tax rates on the wealthy to Clinton-era percentages by letting the Bush tax cuts expire - but it is disingenuous of the President to pretend that this one policy will magically put our economy on sound footing. Surely he knows better.
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama's successes during his first term outweigh his failures. He deserves credit for rescuing the world's largest economy when it was on the brink of disaster through the combination of aggressive stimulus and bailouts of the auto industry and several of the country's largest financial institutions.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to talk about the shortcomings of some of these measures - the financial rescue did not solve "Too-Big-to-Fail", some of the stimulus money was spent inefficiently on silly programs like Cash for Clunkers, many Wall Street institutions were absolved of their sins while Main Street was left on the sidelines - but it is crucial to acknowledge that the President's steady hand and mostly prudent decision making averted an unprecedented meltdown.
In addition, Mr. Obama deserves recognition for extending health insurance to nearly 40 million Americans that would otherwise be a heartbeat away from physical and financial ruin. Real Politik would have preferred the President's healthcare solution to be a single payer system supplemented by a private insurance market, as is the case in almost every other wealthy nation on earth. At the very least, the President should have gone to the mat for the Public Option as to rein in the exploding cost of care, which is the second largest problem under our current healthcare system.
Most depressingly, Mr. Obama and his team never convinced the American people that healthcare is a human right. They were completely ineffectual at combating the barrage of outrageous claims made by the GOP about the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) intentions and impacts. Despite the ACA's numerous flaws, it is the first step to making America a better nation. For that, Mr. Obama deserves praise.
Real Politik has dedicated past columns to Mr. Obama's other accomplishments including improving fuel standards on America's cars, appointing reasonable and qualified justices to the Supreme Court and generally handling his role of Diplomat-in-Chief in a commendable way. The last point was sorely needed when Mr. Obama assumed office in 2008 given the colossal foreign-policy failures of the Bush Administration.
The Obama White House also deserves credit for refocusing Mr. Bush's overly broad Global War on Terror to a more nimble counter terrorism effort focused on actually perusing terrorists instead of Mr. Bush's ruinous nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, which seemed to be a relic of the 19th century instead of a strategy for the 21st.
While Mr. Obama could have done more during his first term to appreciate the severity of the Great Recession, champion healthcare reform in a more effective way, made meaningful progress on immigration reform and taken the lead on entitlement reform, he has led the United States in a mostly responsible way during the most challenging period in our history since World War II. America is clearly better off now than it was four years ago.
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama's shortcomings left room for a credible alternative to assume the presidency. A centrist governor with an impressive business career, history of working across the aisle and solid record of governance could have very well fit the bill. Sadly, that version of Mitt Romney has been largely absent from the 2012 campaign. There are two reasons behind Mr. Romney's metamorphosis: 1) the candidate's personal shortcomings; 2) the revolting degeneration of his party.
Let's start with the second issue first. Plainly stated, the extremism of the modern GOP - embodied by its Tea Party freshman in Congress - is the greatest threat to the future of American politics.
The Republican primaries were a well-chronicled trip through the gutter of Tea Party ideology. From Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry to Ron Paul, Herman Cain to Rick Santorum, we heard that a return to Clinton-era tax rates amounted to Soviet-style socialism, that advanced education is a useless past time reserved for elitist snobs, that illegal immigrants deserve to be electrocuted, that sick people should be left to die, that foreign policy is a waste of time, that Ben Bernanke should be incarcerated, that taxes should never be raised - and always cut - despite our structural deficit.
As his party's standard bearer, Mitt Romney had an opportunity to challenge Tea Party dogma and lay out a compelling vision for the modern Republican Party. His failure during the campaign has been even more striking than Mr. Obama's.
It takes a very special type of politician to institute universal healthcare in Massachusetts, advocate for its repeal during the Republican primaries and then embrace the ACA's most popular components during the general election. Mitt Romney may well become our next president, but he has convinced this writer that he has no true conviction other than getting elected and that his presidency would be as unpredictable as his campaign. The world is too uncertain a place to elect a craven political shape shifter to lead its most powerful nation.
Although Mr. Obama has had a disappointing first term and has run a campaign beneath the dignity of his office, he is still the better choice to lead the United States for the next four years.
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