LESS THAN a half-hour after Barack Obama was declared the victor on Nov. 4, 2008, hundreds of young people of all races marched down Broad Street from Temple University to City Hall in an impromptu celebration of the historic election of this nation's first black president.
But even before his inauguration, Obama had come face-to-face with the severe threat to the global economy posed by a collapse of banks, homes, mortgages and jobs, including more than a million in the teetering auto industry. Also, we were fighting two expensive wars "off the books," and the United States was held in low esteem around the world, thanks to the blunders of the previous administration.
It was, in fact, an epic mess that would have challenged any president. But at the same time that Obama was putting together an administration to tackle it, his opponents, both in Congress and among the right, were not only vowing to make him a one-term president, but they were following through on their pledges with historic obstructionism, eventually taking the government to the brink of shutdown more than once, getting perilously close to defaulting on our debt.
Barack Obama's achievements, and there are many, are all the more notable against this backdrop. They compel his re-election.
Leading that list is the Affordable Care Act. No matter what happens on Tuesday, Obama will go down in U.S. history as the president who succeeded in getting health-care reform passed when all presidents for the previous 70 years had failed to do so. ACA - which passed through reconciliation, bypassing a Senate filibuster and without a single Republican vote - will, when it takes effect, provide coverage for an estimated 30 million Americans, and more later. By mandating that health insurance provide preventive care and by establishing overdue efficiencies, the ACA points the way to solving the nation's true deficit problem: unsustainable health-care costs.
No less important - and no less complicated - was the series of moves Obama took to right the economic disaster created by the banks and financial institutions, which threatened to suck the country into a crippling spiral of depression. Under Obama, the reforms put in place by he Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, while weaker than they should be, provides the framework for righting many of banking's wrongs.
In early 2009, General Motors and Chrysler were in danger of being liquidated because they could not get private financing to allow them to go through a managed bankruptcy. Faced with loud calls to let them go under, with the loss of a million jobs, the Obama administration arranged a government "bailout" that allowed GM and Chrysler to keep running but also imposed strict conditions, with the goal of returning them to profitability, which has now happened.
The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act plowed money into the states to provide stimulus in the form of increased unemployment compensation, food stamps and help with energy and housing, as well as support for states that allowed them to avoid mass layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters. In addition, it funded "shovel-ready" infrastructure improvements. In the process, the private sector stopped hemorrhaging jobs and started creating them.
On his watch, the war in Iraq essentially ended, and troops came home. And President Obama made the call to attack Osama bin Laden in his hideout. His decision to go after the architect of 9/11 took great political courage.
Critics have suggested that, with one or two exceptions, Obama's actions have fallen short: Not enough stimulus money, not enough consumer protection, not enough movement on the environment, not enough job growth, not enough health-care reform, not enough attention to climate change. But ultimately, Obama has been right in his priorities: to mend the country, forestall bigger damage, and set a course for building and growth.
It's hard to know what Mitt Romney's priorities are, besides a single-minded obsession with the size and role of government, and a dedication to a fairy tale of tax cuts as the sole route to growth.
Romney has dismissed 47 percent of the population that doesn't pay income taxes - including the disabled, the elderly and those in the military - as not worthy of his time or attention. This is a stunning statement from someone purporting to want to lead the country.
His demonstration throughout the campaign of caving in to the most extreme elements of his party makes it obvious that he would not stand in its way, no matter what the damage it would cause to the country.
There is no contest between Obama and Romney. This week's devastating storm has underscored the distance between them. While Romney has tried to backpedal from his assertion that emergency management should move from the feds to the states - and, ideally, to the private sector - the Obama administration's response has underscored the role government can play in improving people's lives.