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Other Opinion: The presidential challenges

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With the presidential election at hand, we will not make a closing argument — as is our policy, we will not recommend a candidate — but we do ask you to consider a few closing thoughts.

Strip away the folderol of the campaign — the attack ads that play to base instincts, the white-hot entreaties of partisans, the nonsense.

You will be left with this:

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are competent, moderate politicians — both careful to a fault. Obama’s policies, far from being "socialist," as the tea party would have you believe, are mainstream. Romney’s record in Massachusetts was the same. A conservative? You bet. But a plain vanilla conservative with a sensible urge to compromise.

Obama has proved his abilities over the past four years. Romney has proved his during a long and successful business career and through leadership of his church and the Olympics.

Yes, there are stark policy differences on such things as taxes, social issues, the deficit and foreign policy. But the essence of a moderate is that he or she bridges differences. The essence of a leader is that he or she then brings others to the cause. Either man is capable of being that leader.

But. ...

Can President Obama be a more effective political leader over the next four years? And which Romney is the real Romney, and will that Romney face down the radicals in his own party?

OBAMA’S CHALLENGES

The president was naive and inexperienced when he was sworn in. He had served seven years in the Illinois Senate and only four years in the U.S. Senate. He had no executive experience.

Still, with Democratic control of both houses of Congress during his first two years as president, Obama won passage of a much-needed $787 billion fiscal stimulus bill, reform of financial regulations, a bailout of the auto industry and sweeping reform of the nation’s health care system. On foreign policy, he repaired relations with old allies, ended one war and wound down another. He took the fight to the terrorists and ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. In our view, he should be more willing to use American power when needed — not on the battlefield — but to pressure for change in Syria and Iran or to settle the Israeli-Palestinian question.

But after losing control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama’s inexperience became a liability.

Faced with a solid GOP wall of opposition, Obama’s agenda faltered. The GOP voting bloc in the House nearly shut down the government in April 2011, and the debt ceiling melodrama dragged on into that summer. Obama tried to get a "grand bargain" in July of that year that would have reduced the deficit by $4 trillion, but conservatives whined that $1 trillion in new taxes were part of the deal. That failure led directly to the "fiscal cliff" the nation is facing at end of this year when the Bush tax cuts expire and deep automatic spending cuts are scheduled to take effect unless Congress acts.

Obama’s partner in the negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), bears a significant amount of responsibility. Boehner couldn’t control his caucus.

But as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward noted in his book on the subject, "The Price of Politics," Obama failed.

"It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business ... Obama has not."

Can an aloof and difficult-to-read man who too often leaves even members of his own party guessing change the way he does business? Can he govern differently when political conditions warrant?

ROMNEY’S CHALLENGES

So which Mitt is this week’s Mitt? Is is the Severely Conservative Mitt? Or is it Moderate Mitt?

Romney has flip-flopped so many times he is like a fish out of water. He has never seemed comfortable with the political seas. But his real problem is his party. It has drifted so far to the right that it has left him behind. Conservatives didn’t want him and only accept him now because they so despise the president.

Romney supported abortion rights in Massachusetts but now hews to Republican dogma on the issue (though now he says he supports exceptions for women whose lives are in danger, who have been raped or who are victims of incest). His singular achievement as governor was a health-care plan which became a model for the national plan Obama signed into law. But it’s anathema to the GOP, so Romney has disowned it.

Will Romney stand up to firebrands in his party such as Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a well-meaning, tough-minded conservative who is justifiably concerned about the nation’s finances but has shown very little willingness to compromise?

It could be Romney knows his own heart and will back sensible policies even at the risk of offending the far right.

Or, it could be as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter put it in a column published last week on our website: "Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over."

It is up to you now to answer those questions. If you haven’t voted yet, please do your duty on Tuesday.

 

— McClatchy Tribune Information Services

 

 

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