When President Obama took office in January 2009 the US was plunging downward into the worst recession since World War II. By summer 2009, the US had begun a weak but real recovery, which at last seems to be accelerating into an expansion that more and more Americans can feel.
President Obama gave the order that killed Osama bin Laden. He ended the war in Iraq on acceptable terms. He is enforcing tightening sanctions against Iran, inspiring hopes of a peaceful end to that country's nuclear program.
Meanwhile, his opponents in Congress have behaved about as badly and irresponsibly as any opposition group since the congressional Democrats of the mid-1970s forced the defeat of South Vietnam. And as for conservatives in the country - well, I've posted my thoughts elsewhere on that particular plunge into paranoia and extremism.
Yet you don't have to believe the president a Marxist Muslim to prefer a different direction for the country over the next four years.
Elections are about the future, not the past. President Obama got important things right in his first time, but he's heading the wrong way in his second: toward a future with a permanently larger state sector and much more government control over private decision-making. The United States needs to edge away from that future, and back toward a more market-oriented trajectory.
I don't want to see Obamacare repealed. I don't believe it will be, not even if the Republicans retake the Senate, which I don't expect either. Precisely since the universal healthcare law will remain in place, I want to see it implemented by people who see cost control as the first priority - who will grant maximum flexibility to the states - and who will recognize how dangerous it is to finance Obamacare with taxes only on the rich. A law of benefit to all should be paid for by all, for otherwise beneficiaries lose all concern for costs.
I do want government out of the business of making investment decisions. The way to meet the climate change challenge is by taxing carbon emissions, not by government acting as venture capitalist to the green-energy industry. Fiscal stimulus was necessary in 2009. It's not an excuse for unending government subsidy to particular industries and firms.
The country's most pressing economic problem IS the break-down of the old middle-class economy. Wages are stagnating at the middle, class lines are hardening, and more and more of the benefits of growth are claimed by the very wealthiest. President Obama delivered his answer to this problem in his important speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, a year ago: more direct government employment (at higher wages), more government contracting (to enforce higher wages), and more government aid to college students (in hope that expanding the number of degree holders will raise their average wage). Obama is following a path explored by the British Labor governments of 1997-2010, when the majority of the net new jobs created in northern and western England, Scotland, and Wales were created in the public sector. That approach pushed Britain into fiscal crisis, when the recession abruptly cut the flow of funds from south-eastern England to pay everybody else's government salary.
Nor do the president's ideas about college education look any more sound. In the past, more subsidies for college students invited colleges to raise tuition in tandem. Subsidies invite more students to start college, but do not ensure that any more finish: US college completion rates have not increased in 30 years. Students who start college but do not finish actually seem to do worse in the job market than high-school graduates.
Because the president's economic ideas all involve more and costlier government, his first post-election priority is fiscal: raise more revenue from higher taxes. If the president has his way, the top income-tax rate with surtaxes will jump past 40%, a rate not seen since the middle 1980s. We don't need another round of income tax cuts, but if new revenues are needed, they should be raised from taxes on consumption and carbon, not work, saving, and investment.
Every election is a variation on the old vaudeville joke, "compared to what?"
Would Mitt Romney be an improvement over President Obama? I'd like to believe the David Brooks theory of the Romney presidency: that Romney will pivot away from Tea Party Republicanism as soon as he is elected. I don't see much evidence in support of that theory, alas. George Romney, I'm told, liked to say, "As you campaign, so shall you govern." Mitt Romney's campaign has been one long appeasement of the most selfish and stupid elements of the Republican coalition, and the instinct for appeasement will not terminate with the counting of the votes next Tuesday.
But I also reject the Jonathan Chait theory that Romney personally shares the beliefs of the selfish and stupid elements of the coalition. Massachusetts Mitt - the Mitt who hurled himself into the battle for universal health coverage within his state - also came from someplace real. I believe they came from the place whence also came passages like this in Romney's book, No Apology, a book whose middle sections pretty obviously were written or dictated by the candidate himself.
Following my election as governor of Massachusetts, and knowing that I now shared responsibility for the education of hundreds of thousands of young people, I studied the education literature to gain perspective. What I found was a virtual quicksand of differing opinion in which it would be easy to sink, but what was missing was an examination of data. Instead, most writers sought to convince readers by appealing to their inherent prejudices and by recounting anecdotes that supported their particular policy preferences. … Anecdotes are illustrative, but data is compelling – particularly if it is comprehensive and presented by an unbiased source. (201)
I liked the bit about the data, but even more the calm acceptance of "responsibility." Romney has demonstrated an ability to absorb and process information we've seen in no Republican candidate for president since Dwight Eisenhower. And the finest accomplishment of his governorship, Romneycare, is the work of a man who takes seriously the obligations that society owes to each and every one of its members, the 47% as well as the 53%. Romney has the capacity to excel at the job of president.
The question over his head is not a question about him at all. It's a question about his party - and that question is the same whether Romney wins or loses. The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won't reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP - and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment. A Romney election will at least discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013. Added bonus: a Romney presidency likely means that the congressional GOP will lose seats in 2014, as they deserve.
As for those who claim that a vote for Romney is a vote for war - either against Iran or somebody else - I'd just note this: President Obama escalated one war (Afghanistan) and started another (Libya). American foreign policy is much more continuous than discontinuous. Obama's foreign policy is George W. Bush's with a course correction, and Mitt Romney's will be Barack Obama's, with another course correction. Neither man will want war with Iran if it can possibly be avoided. But I don't think either man would flinch from striking Iran if it proved unavoidable - and one man, Romney, will approach that decision governed by fewer illusions about the dangers the United States faces in the world.
The American system of government is malfunctioning badly. One thing President Obama got exactly right, in my opinion, is his skepticism that the system can be fixed from within Washington. It cannot. The incentives here are too perverse. What we need to make government work better is a citizens' movement that demands better functioning government in a broader public interest - an anti-Tea Party, supported by public-spirited leaders rather than wealth-protecting oligarchs. What we need inside Washington is an administration that respects market forces, works to control healthcare spending, and keeps out of the way of the gathering recovery.
Which is why, if I lived outside the District of Columbia, I'd split my ticket. I'd vote Romney for president, and balance that with a vote for a moderate-to-conservative Democrat for House and Senate, if such Democrats are locally available. If I lived in Virginia, for example, I'd vote with gusto against George Allen - a perfect example of what we don't need any more of in Congress. I'd vote against an Akin or a Mourdock, and against any member of the House who urged Congress toward a voluntary default in the debt-ceiling fight of 2011.
In the District, I lack a meaningful congressional choice - and anyway nobody would describe our local Democratic party as moderate-to-conservative. The best that can be said of our local Democrats is that many of them are unindicted. I have only one national vote to cast, and that I'll cast for the candidate with the right vision for national security and the national economy: Mitt Romney for president.