Obama is the least bad choice U.S. voters can make

With a week to go and Hurricane Sandy bringing fresh uncertainty and new opportunities for gaffes, the presidential election still looks tied. Last week, I argued that the contest need not have been this close, that Barack Obama could have won comfortably if he'd governed and campaigned as the centrist he said he was in 2008 and not the thwarted progressive he turned out to be.

This week, I want to argue that despite this failure Obama is still a better choice than Mitt Romney.

The incumbent has achievements to be proud of. The fiscal stimulus, flawed as it was, helped prevent what would have been an even worse recession. Obama's signature initiative, health- care reform, addresses the most egregious failure of American public policy: the country's inability to insure all its people against illness, something just about every other advanced economy has managed to do. The Affordable Care Act is flawed, just as the stimulus was flawed, but it upholds a vital principle. It should be built on, not repealed.

Sadly, in domestic policy as in foreign policy, the president led from behind, and health-care reform never had the champion it needed. It remains unpopular, hence capable of being undone by a Republican president and a Republican-dominated Congress. If you hope to see the health-care reform survive with improvements, as I do, that's reason in itself to support Obama, as disappointing as his failure to lock the policy down might be.

Obama's biggest mistake was to abandon his efforts — never very strenuous — to work with his Republican opponents or, failing that, to expose them as irresponsible extremists. To do this, as I explained last week, he had to occupy the center that the Republicans had vacated. Instead, despite the Democrats' drubbing in 2010, he tacked left, further polarizing the country. In this he probably followed his instincts. Unlike Bill Clinton, a centrist by conviction, Obama's intellectual loyalty is to the progressive wing of his party. His campaign's class- war anti-capitalist rhetoric — not a great vote-winner in the United States, even after the Great Contraction — has seemed all too sincere.

In that complaint, of course, lies the case for Romney. The disinterred former governor of Massachusetts stands close to the U.S. political center of gravity. Would he take up the opportunity Obama missed, and bridge the divide in Washington?

Somebody needs to try. For the past four years, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have settled for talking past each other and past much of the country, too, advancing rival fantasies of a transformed country that few Americans actually want. One vision is collectivist, stressing redistribution and a permanently enlarged role for government; the other is radically individualist, seeking to eviscerate the federal government and roll back the welfare state. Activists on both sides may be all fired up, as Obama likes to say. The rest of the U.S. despairs.

Most voters, I'm convinced, want to see the U.S. mended, not transformed. If I'm right, more ballots will be cast next week to block the outcome that voters fear most than to affirm a future they actually support. Both campaigns — especially Obama's — have been directed to this end. Whatever the outcome, therefore, this election will deliver no mandate. That's the price of polarization, a measure of Washington's failure, and it points to continued deadlock: a clash of grand ideologies signifying nothing, leaving the country's eminently fixable problems unaddressed.

Could Romney be the answer? It's possible. Critics say he's a man without conviction. In my view, that's his main advantage: Washington already has a surfeit of true believers, and the last thing the country needs is one of either stripe in the White House.

If the real Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts, as I suspect, not the man who campaigned for the GOP nomination, he would fit the bill. His audacious pivot from the severe conservative of the primaries to the pragmatic moderate who turned up for the first presidential debate suggests he understands what the country, as opposed to his party, is looking for: a manager, a fixer, a consensus-builder, a maker of deals.

To be that president, however, Romney would have to be willing to thwart the ambitions of Republicans in Congress. That won't be easy. He's promised to start dismantling the Affordable Care Act — the national equivalent of his own Romneycare — on Day One. He can't easily go back on that. He's also adopted the mindless Republican opposition to any and all tax increases, despite knowing that higher revenues will be needed to get public borrowing back under control.

President Romney might want to swing all the way back to Massachusetts moderate. I can even imagine him hoping for Democrats to do well in the 2014 mid-terms, to make this easier. But in 2013 he would at least have to go through the motions of making common cause with Republicans in Congress. That's an alarming prospect. If the choice is between an empowered Republican party in its present radicalized form and continued paralysis, I'd reluctantly choose paralysis.

Whatever America decides, there will be little to celebrate on Nov. 7. The country's politics are broken. Obama has claimed during the campaign that if he's re-elected, the Republican fever will abate and the deadlock in Washington will give way to productive engagement. Rubbish. Suppose Obama wins narrowly — the best he can hope for, if polls are to be believed — and a Republican majority is returned to the House. Things will stand much as they have for the past two years. When such an outcome is the best that can be expected, it's hard to be optimistic about the country's prospects.

I want Obama to win. Even if he does, I'll need a drink to drown my sorrows.

Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.