James Downey: Obama came to power at wrong time, but he'll get second chance
YOU don't need to have followed the American presidential campaign closely, or at all, to know the main issue. "It's the economy, stupid."
But it isn't the economy in quite the same way as it was 20 years ago, when that most formidable of campaigners, Bill Clinton, drummed the message into the heads of his supporters.
Then, the odds favoured an attractive challenger facing an unpopular incumbent. President George Bush senior had promised "no new taxes" and failed, as political leaders do, to deliver. This time round the incumbent, President Barack Obama, has to defend his record and the challenger, Mitt Romney, can exploit the United States' economic troubles and make any promises he likes.
So what is the record, and what is the credibility of the man who seeks to replace him?
At home and around the world, the name Obama is constantly coupled with the word "disappointment". That always happens when people expect too much and place too much faith in a candidate's rhetoric and his personal qualities. In office, the president and the public learn the brutal facts that face anyone who governs.
And this president did not come to power at a good time. Among those brutal facts are the spectacular rise of China and the degeneration of the Arab Spring into a series of conflicts that make the Middle East an even more dangerous place.
In domestic affairs, four years ago the new Democratic president inherited an economic and financial crisis from the outgoing Republican administration. Along with the Federal Reserve, he has had too little credit for the recovery that has made itself felt in the last few months.
True, the recovery has been slow, and growth hard to come by. And Obama has had to struggle with problems hard for an outsider to understand. The Republicans in Congress have profited from the American "separation of powers" doctrine to obstruct his initiatives -- though they failed to prevent his outstanding achievement, universal health insurance.
Still, the Keynesian policies of the Federal Reserve have strengthened America's position in a way that Europe must and should envy. (Has Angela Merkel taken note?)
It may be that the improvement in the economy has not come fast enough or strongly enough to impress the voters.
The opinion polls consistently show Mitt Romney slightly ahead. That may be misleading. By another quirk of the American system, the election is not decided by the popular vote but by an electoral college which may produce -- and sometimes has produced -- a different result. Thus the importance of the "swing states".
The bookmakers, meanwhile, make Obama the strong favourite. And bookies very seldom get it wrong.
He himself got something badly wrong in the first televised debate with Mitt Romney. He struck too low a note. What had become of the new, bright, shiny Barack Obama of four years ago? He made up for it in the two subsequent debates, but he had given the challenger an advantage.
Has Romney exploited it? It doesn't look that way.
It isn't easy for a 65-year-old (though he appears very much younger) to present himself as new or bright or shiny. He talks of "big change", but without offering specifics. And his position in the political spectrum is, to say the least, curious.
Romney is a self-described moderate, with impeccable credentials. He was an excellent governor of Massachusetts. He managed the state's finances admirably. He brought in, of all things, near-universal health insurance.
In the present campaign, and previously in the Republican nomination campaign, he gave exactly the right impression: "a safe pair of hands".
But his party has swung to the right: the religious right as well as the economic right. In effect, he acknowledged this by choosing Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate. You may recall that on a previous occasion John McCain, another moderate, did much the same thing by choosing Sarah Palin.
That turned out not to be a very good idea.
Apart from making the rich even richer, what would the party's right wing expect from him if he became president?
Quite likely, the fundamentalists would want to make abortion -- the most contentious question in American domestic politics -- the lead issue, and thereby set the country by the ears.
Not that he is gaffe-free himself. This week he named Russia as America's number one enemy. He must have forgotten that Russia's superpower status disappeared 20 years ago. Earlier, he talked of attacking Iran. You have to wonder if he knows anything at all about foreign policy.
The economic health of the United States matters to the whole world. But matters of war and peace, and good judgment, matter even more.
Obama has learnt a lot in the last four years. If re-elected, he will learn more. I fancy that we will be a little more at ease with someone who has completed a first course with a B-plus than one who has to start the learning process from scratch.