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Unfinished Business 

President Obama has made progress on the economy; history says we should keep him on the job

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There once was a president, elected in our darkest hour, who did all he could, as fast as he could, to keep Lady Liberty alive. Some of the cures he tried worked; others didn’t. He was struggling, and after four years of ups and downs, amid continuing hardship, he asked for another term.

That president made a lot of enemies — the same people who had crippled America with all their greedy speculating. They labeled him a Marxist and would only call him, “that man.” They lined up behind a challenger who promised to take the country back to the policies of the previous president — even though they had only succeeded at adding more gas to the fire.

Faced with the choice, America said, “Um, are you crazy?”

In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide and got back to wrestling the Great Depression.

This election, like that one, is a referendum on much more than just the past four years. The basic question is the same, too: Should we give Barack Obama four more years to finish the job he started, or should we go back to the failed policies of the previous administration?

It’s not a difficult decision.

MAN OF MYSTERY

We all know what kind of president Barack Obama will be; we’ve watched him for four years. There is no mystery.

But Mitt Romney, now there’s an enigma. He has offered nothing in his specifics-free campaign to suggest any kind of break from George W. Bush, whose credit-card binge spending and wink-wink regulations kicked America back into Great Depression territory. Romney has the same advisers as Bush, and his central economic plan — cut taxes, spend more and the deficit will magically vanish — is pure W.

What we do know about him is troubling. For example, when you compare him to his father, George, Mitt Romney embodies an ominous change on the American landscape. In that generational hand-off, we went from a country that focused on building things — in George Romney’s case, cars at American Motors — to a country that more and more shuffles paper around while scheming to suck up every loose dollar. It’s what Newt Gingrich calls “vulture capitalism,” and it perfectly describes Romney’s experience at Bain Capital.

You could call it gambling, but that would suggest there is risk. If the companies Bain took over flourished, Romney made money. If the companies Bain took over failed, Romney pushed some of that paper around, rearranged the debt and still made money. Some companies they took over were just ripped up like an old car being sold for parts. In arguing for no regulation of this dangerous sector, Romney would the enabler-in chief to the speculators — the hedge funders, the sub-prime lenders, the me-first CEOs.

The vast majority of American business people deliver an actual product, play by the rules and pay fair taxes; they are not Romney’s people. As proof, and in a stark break from his father’s old ways, Romney even argued, in the worst moment of the recession, that Detroit should just go bankrupt.

So there’s a big difference between a pro-business president and a pro-Wall Street president. You wonder why so many billionaires are funding the Romney machine? Even slight changes to the tax code can result in hundreds of millions in their pockets — or, more accurately, in their Cayman Islands accounts.

No Wall Streeter wants anyone looking at his Cayman Islands account — that’s kind of the point of having an account there, as Romney does. But Romney wants to be president, and by not releasing his tax returns he is maintaining more secrecy than any previous presidential candidate. So we’re left to wonder: Has Romney shirked on his taxes? Even more troubling, what kinds of investments is he holding, and would those — investments in Middle East oil, Chinese national companies — influence his presidency? This alone is enough to disqualify Romney from the job, yet he persists with the secrecy. There’s a reason he won’t level with us.

Congress at the Controls

The longer Mitt Romney has run for president, the more he has bought into every oddball idea coming out of the right-wing time machine. They want to take America back to the days before Medicare, when seniors were on their own — this is his own running mate’s big idea. They want to go back to the time before abortion was legal — some prefer pre-birth control, even — when women were denied their right to make their own health decisions. They want even more tax cuts — as a way to somehow trim the deficit. How that works, they can’t explain. Even Ronald Reagan’s own budget director says their plans are “devoid of actual math.” This is the biggest joke of a national policy proposal ever offered.

And you can count on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to take care of the all the devils in the details during a Romney presidency.

Long ago, there was a Mitt Romney who stood up to his party’s orthodoxies as governor of Massachusetts. He was wonky on policy and nearly liberal; he and his wife even supported Planned Parenthood. Some think that’s the real Romney — a moderate who would veer back to the middle as president. But after watching his tack to the far, far right during the primary campaign, then his swing to the left during the first debate, there’s just one conclusion: Romney always tells his audience what he thinks they want to hear. On Monday night, during the foreign policy debate, he was at it again. Instead of reiterating his many past critiques of Obama’s statesmanship, he just sat there and agreed with the president.

You just grab the Etch-a-Sketch, and you shake it.

Hope, Like America, Endures

The George W. Bush financial debacle was the closest thing to armageddon that any of us have lived through. But as FDR himself observed, “Now that these people are coming out of their storm cellars, they forget that there ever was a storm.”

People are anxious, wondering why Obama hasn’t fixed everything yet. We should expect a lot from our leaders, but our on-demand, instant-gratification ethic does not translate well to the slow, messy business of rebuilding the economy. Try to remember the darkest moments of late 2008, when people were putting cash under their mattresses and jobs were vanishing by the minute.

America took a greed-induced, self-inflicted sucker punch to the gut. But the president’s quick, crucial decisions and steady leadership contained the problem and laid a foundation we’ve been building on ever since. Simply put, Obama pulled America’s ass out of the fire.

Now job growth is steady, the stock market is up from its low of 6,500 in 2009 and growth in government spending is as low as it’s been since Eisenhower. The future is bright.

Still, the GOP hates on Obama. They call him a socialist despite the fact that he bailed out Wall Street and handed private insurance companies millions of new customers. Do they know how dumb that sounds to people who actually know what socialism is?

Maybe it’s because he cribbed some of their best ideas. Obama took their blueprint for health care reform, which Romney tested first, and made it the law of the land. He shared their ideas about merit-based reforms for public schools with his Race to the Top. He kept Bush’s big idea — tax cuts — and expanded it to the middle class; he’s been a fearsome commander in chief in the war on terror, but instead of land invasions, he prefers precision strikes; and he has offered actual proposals to cut the deficit.

It’s Bill Clinton’s old trick, to co-opt the opposition. But when Clinton and Gingrich agreed on and enacted welfare reform, they shared the credit. In a sign of how far down the rabbit-hole of partisanship the GOP has gone, today they’d rather turn their backs on their own proposals than share credit. That’s not leadership, it’s cynicism.

Despite all the hating, President Obama has stayed positive, focused on his job and kept hope alive. You remember hope? You know, from those posters? This time it’s not some greeting-card platitude; Obama has made hope real. Via tough decisions and hard-fought battles, he has created real progress on some of the biggest messes we’ve ever had to clean up. And America runs on progress and hope, not cynicism.

Listening to History

“It is the habit of the unthinking to turn, in times like this, to the illusions of economic magic.” That’s Franklin Roosevelt take on the notion of sticking with Herbert Hoover for four more years.

“Illusions of economic magic” pretty much nails the only idea Mitt Romney is offering. And it sounds a lot like what George W. Bush saddled us with, too.

When we need advice, history can be our guide. And history proves that elections matter — that the choices we make have impacts beyond our imaginations.

Franklin Roosevelt went on to save our Republic. Herbert Hoover’s name became synonymous with failure. One side was on the right side of history; one side was not. That year, America chose wisely. This year, Barack Obama is the right choice. 

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