In a very real sense, this year's presidential election campaign has taken place in an artificial setting, the state of the nation viewed through tinted glasses, significant problems and challenges glossed over or ignored.
It's as if voters and candidates caught those problems, briefly, in their peripheral vision and then blinked, turned, and the problems were gone, from vision and from memory.
Yes, there has been frequent focus on the economy, on jobs, on the need for a stronger recovery, frequent citing of statistics about jobs lost and jobs created. Frequent pledges to improve the lives of working-class Americans.
But for all the attention paid to the problems of cities, the racial divide, income inequality, the problems facing the poor, the crisis in the black community, someone watching from another planet would think that the only decision facing voters is which candidate will best unleash the economy and restore jobs to the hard-working middle-class Americans who have lost them.
Little that President Obama has said, and nothing that Mitt Romney has said, indicates that either has a plan that will address those other severe problems. And those problems, as surely as an Al Qaeda operative plotting in Yemen, and much more than business regulations or high taxes, hold a great threat for the future of the United States.
Unspoken in this campaign have been statistics like these, included in Frederick C. Harris's article in Sunday's New York Times: "18 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children)...." And from an analysis by Sam Roberts, right below the Harris article: "Among male high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979, 68 percent of blacks (compared with 28 percent of whites) had been imprisoned at some point by 2009..... By the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent.... More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs."
Also unspoken: plans for dealing with one of the great threats to the planet, global warming.
Those problems will not go away simply because the candidates fail to mention them. Nor will they go away because Americans prefer not to think about them or consider them insignificant.
An assessment of the presidential candidates, then, must take place with the reality and the severity of those problems as the backdrop. The ideology of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, their view of government's role, and their statements about related challenges tell us something about how they view those problems, and whether, and how, they might deal with them.
For those reasons, and for many others, the United States will be in better hands over the next four years with Barack Obama than with Mitt Romney.
It is important, by the way, that New Yorkers vote in large numbers on Election Day. The myth is that the votes in this heavily Blue state don't matter. For the Electoral College, New York is a winner-take-all state. Unless his supporters stay home in dramatic numbers, all 29 of our Electoral College votes will go to President Obama.
But the popular vote total is also important. If Obama wins a majority in the Electoral College but loses the popular vote, he will face continued trouble getting cooperation from Republicans in his second term. That's also an important reason for liberals who are disappointed in Obama to not express that disappointment by voting for one of the third-party candidates.
Republicans, and some disenchanted Democrats, have tried to portray Obama as an ineffective leader with slim accomplishments. That is simply not the case.
Like many liberals, we have sometimes been unhappy with Obama. His deference to the financial industry, his failure to close Guantanamo, his authorization of the use of drones, his lack of leadership on global warming and gun control: all have been deeply troubling.
But he stabilized the economy, preventing a far worse crisis and enabling a recovery to begin. By signing Dodd-Frank, he got reforms started to prevent some of the financial-industry abuses that got us into this mess. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has attacked Dodd-Frank.
Obama has reformed the federal student loan program, removing banks as middlemen, making the loans less expensive and tying payments to graduates' income. Romney wants to undo that.
Obama named Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.
He ended the don't-ask, don't-tell policy in the military and has endorsed marriage equality. Romney, in contrast, says he would propose a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Obama has raised fuel standards and has the far more sensible attitude about the need for environmental regulations. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency advanced rules that treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant that the EPA can regulate. He is friendlier to renewable energy and government investment in research, development, and deployment.
He ended much of the US involvement Iraq and is moving the US military out of Afghanistan. He has been criticized for both, but there is no good way to leave either place; they are not our countries, and we cannot determine their future.
Through wars, muscle-flexing, torture, a unilateralist philosophy, and historical and cultural ignorance, the administration of George W. Bush severely harmed the reputation of the United States. President Obama, with Hillary Clinton as his excellent Secretary of State, has worked to undo that damage. Mitt Romney gives every indication that he would start us back down the Bush road, catering to and advised by the bellicose, expansionist, exceptionalist neo-cons of his party.
And Romney's shoot-from-the-hip pronouncement immediately after the tragedy at the Libyan consulate showed a candidate who is either callously political or dangerously belligerent.
Obama has wisely begun to try to bring defense spending under control. Romney has promised to reverse that, repeating the Far Right's fabrication that Obama has put the nation at risk and pledging to ramp up defense spending, investing in bombers and ships that we do not need. Obama argues that with our involvement in Iraq over and our involvement in Afghanistan winding down, we can afford to, and should, invest in infrastructure, education, and other areas at home.
A major Obama accomplishment, of course, is the Affordable Care Act, which Romney has promised to repeal. Obama conceded too much to special health-care interests at the outset, but the act is already expanding access and coverage, and that will increase as the act kicks in fully. It is an imperfect but crucially important step toward just, affordable health care for all Americans.
The United States does have to come to grips with the cost, waste, and warped incentives of its health-care system, something that a single-payer system would have dealt with more quickly and easily. Americans and their elected officials must also agree that because people are living longer – and more expensive life-enhancing treatments are available – some cost increases are unavoidable in a humane society. We also need to agree that as we live longer, healthier, active lives, Social Security and Medicare will require adjustments.
The answer, however, is not to reduce access to health care, make Americans more reliant on the private insurance industry, push Medicaid costs further onto financially strapped states, and turn the efficient, effective Medicare system into a privatized voucher system, as Romney and his conservative party want to do.
Particularly threatened by a Romney administration would be women's health and reproductive choice. The right-wing influence in this area is especially strong, and whether out of conviction or political motivation, Romney would put their ideology into law. The next president will almost certainly name at least one Supreme Court justice, and if that president is Romney, Roe v. Wade will likely be a thing of the past.
In areas such as insurance coverage for contraceptives, Planned Parenthood funding in the US, and family planning assistance abroad, Mitt Romney would push women back into a harsher, colder era, in which crucial life decisions were made by government, not by them and their doctors.
From the start, a second term for Barack Obama has been at risk because economic growth has been small and unemployment and under-employment large. The recovery has been weaker than it might have been, thanks in part to Republican obstructionism, in part to Obama's naiveté and over-reliance on advice from the financial industry. But what we are crawling out of is no ordinary recession; the hole was too deep to bounce up out of. The unpaid Bush wars and tax cuts, the runaway greed in the financial industry: no president could have completely undone the damage and healed our deep hurt in four years.
We all want the pain to end. And Mitt Romney has played to that longing, selling, like a 12st-century Harold Hill, the line that his business experience is just what we need to fix our troubles. And there is no question that if Mitt Romney is elected, he will have a different economic policy than President Obama has had.
Romney has embraced fully the conservative philosophy that a key to improving the economy is to cut taxes, something that has been disproved again and again. The conservatives' aim, clearly, is not only to benefit the wealthiest Americans but also to starve the programs that help the neediest and most vulnerable.
The result would also be an increase in the deficit. And Romney still refuses to say how he could reduce revenue and reduce the deficit at the same time. All he will tell us is that he has a plan, and it will work – because he's a businessman.
As for that business experience: Heading a national government requires different skills and a different mentality than running a business, even when boosting jobs and improving the economy is a high priority for a president. And in fact Romney's experience at Bain Capital offers a good example: success for private equity firms is based on financial profit for the investors, regardless of the human cost.
For proof that the Obama administration has been on the right track, look at the recovery of the American auto industry, and at the fact that we are in better shape than many European countries. Proof that we may be an election away from landing in Europe's fix: Romney and Ryan are preaching the same austerity sermon that has made the situation far worse in countries like Greece.
On issues alone, we would endorse President Obama for a second term. But there is another, equally serious concern about Romney: character.
It's hard to know what he stands for. On too many things, he has been too vague. On others, and on some very important issues, he has changed positions repeatedly. It would be one thing if he truly had changed his mind. That would suggest an openness, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to accept that he has been wrong in the past. But a candidate who swings wildly from moderate to "severely conservative" back to moderate in a few months is doing it purely for political reasons.
There is also the issue of Romney's being out of touch, growing not only out of his wealth but also out of an apparently cocooned life as a business executive in which he does not know, and has not tried to learn about, the hardships of those less fortunate than he.
And that is hardened by a troubling callousness exhibited in his 47-percent remark and in his statements that he would enact policies that would, in effect, starve out undocumented immigrants, leading them to "self-deport."
Wealth should not be a disqualifier for political candidates. We have had excellent wealthy presidents and excellent poor presidents who came from exceptionally humble backgrounds. What is important is their attitude, how their background has shaped them
And then there are the lies and distortions.
Romney has lied about Obama's record and about his own policies: lied when he said federal spending has grown at a rate "without precedent in recent history," lied when he said Obama has gone abroad apologizing for the United States, lied when he said that the health-care plan he favors will cover pre-existing conditions, lied when he said Obama has cut $716 billion out of Medicare, lied when he said he sought out women for his administration when he was governor of Massachusetts, lied when he said the Affordable Care Act created a government take-over of health care, lied when he said that under Obama's welfare plan, recipients wouldn't have to try to find work, that government would just send them a check.
He has trotted out these falsehoods again and again, despite repeated refutation by non-partisan fact-checkers. It is indicative of the campaign's respect for truth that in the face of those refutations, a Romney pollster told a Republican gathering that the campaign wouldn't be "dictated by fact-checkers."
Two additional issues cause us to worry about the possibility of a Romney presidency. One is the continuing gridlock in Congress. Voters seem worn out by the bickering and partisanship, and rightly so. Mitt Romney says he offers the best chance for bi-partisanship in Washington, and he points to his record in Massachusetts, saying that as governor, he worked successfully with the Democrat-dominated legislature to get things done.
Some Americans apparently have bought that pitch. The Des Moines Register, for instance, endorsed Romney on Sunday – its first endorsement of a Republican for president in 40 years – because its editorial writers think he will be more likely to break the deadlock in Washington.
But the New York Times recently gave this assessment of the Romney era in Massachusetts: "Bipartisanship was in short supply; Statehouse Democrats complained he variously ignored, insulted or opposed them, with intermittent charm offensives. He vetoed scores of legislative initiatives and excised budget line items a remarkable 844 times, according to the nonpartisan research group factcheck.org. Lawmakers reciprocated by quickly overriding the vast bulk of them."
"The big-ticket items that Mr. Romney proposed when he entered office in January 2003 went largely unrealized," said the Times article, "and some that were achieved turned out to have a comparatively minor impact. A wholesale restructuring of state government was dead on arrival in the legislature; an ambitious overhaul of the state university system was stillborn; a consolidation of transportation fiefs never took place."
Blame that outcome on the Democrats or blame it on Romney; the fact is, he has greatly exaggerated his ability to get things done when he was governor. And there is no reason whatsoever to believe that he would have more success as president – unless, of course, the Republican Party, now fully a captive of its right wing, wins control of the Senate in November.
And that brings up one of the most troubling prospects of a Romney presidency: the influence of the hard-right faction in his party. Some moderate Republicans – the Times' David Brooks, for one – have taken comfort in Romney's recent apparent tack back to the faux-center. They are fooling themselves. A president is not a king, not even in his own party. Conservatives were heatedly opposed to Romney as the nominee. They did not trust him then, and while they were comforted by his selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential candidate, they do not trust him now.
But they will not be happy if Romney turns his back on them after his inauguration. They have a clear agenda. They control the House. They control the Republicans in the Senate. And they have shown that they are not only willing but eager to unseat any Republican who doesn't toe their line.
That will certainly include a president. And there seems little doubt that if he is elected, Mitt Romney would want a second term as badly as he wanted the first one, and that he would do whatever it took to get it.
For Barack Obama's supporters, the 2012 election does not carry the emotional weight of the election four years ago. But for many of his critics, the reverse is true. Their dislike of Obama is deep, and regardless of their feelings about Mitt Romney, they will get to the polls, and they will vote for him.
Obama has done good things for this country. He has reversed a slide that would have resulted in economic pain much more severe than what we have experienced. He has promoted policies that will help ordinary Americans in areas of health care, college tuition, and workplace equality. He has a sane, even-handed approach to foreign policy. He recognizes the threat of global warming.
This is a crucial election, whose outcome will have a long-lasting impact on this country. It is not a time to overlook issues of character, or to let the hope for a stronger economy override concerns about affordable health care, equality, justice, income disparity, racism, and militarism.
Barack Obama was the superior choice in 2008. And he is the superior choice in 2012.