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If this election were merely a referendum on the leadership of President Obama, endorsing him for a second term would be no sure thing. He has too often been absent where leadership was needed and insufficiently aggressive in the face of reckless tea party politics.

What is more, after having spent a lifetime in politics and virtually none in the private sector, he knows a lot about spending public money and not enough about how to earn it.

But elections aren’t decided in a vacuum; they represent a choice between alternatives and, in that light, it is clear that Obama is the better choice. Despite his weaknesses, he possesses notable strengths and kept the country functioning despite the twin challenges of a historic recession and a wildly dysfunctional Congress.

What is more, Mitt Romney has not shown himself to be the kind of man the nation needs as a president.

Frankly, Romney virtually disqualified himself as a serious candidate in the secretly recorded comments he made to a private gathering of donors earlier this year. That was the infamous and revealing speech in which he flatly declared that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims, that they pay no income tax and that it is his job “not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

It was a stunning and dismaying window on Romney’s view of the people he would lead. It is also one that Americans can trust that he truly believes, despite saying later that his comment was “not elegantly stated” and still later that he had been “completely wrong.”

It was entirely in line with Romney’s habit of rewriting his own history. Which is more credible: that he saw the light just at the moment that his haughty attitude was becoming a political liability, or that he truly believes what he told a crowd of wealthy donors when he thought no one else was listening?

Indeed, who really knows what Romney stands for? He has changed positions more often than a mother changes diapers. In fact, a top aide promised Romney would do that very thing in his all-too-revealing Etch A Sketch comment.

Is he for taking a more aggressive stand in Syria or not? Until last Monday’s debate he was. Then he wasn’t. Was it worth going after Osama bin Laden or not? On Monday he thought it was fine; before that, he thought it wasn’t.

Domestically, he promises to lower taxes, raise spending on the military and reduce the deficit, but he won’t say how he can achieve that outcome. And there’s a reason for that: Because he can’t. It’s worse than fuzzy math; it’s deceptive math that necessarily relies on budget cuts and other changes he won’t discuss. In that, he is playing a shell game with voters, and that kind of candidate does not belong in the White House.

Whoever is elected president will almost certainly appoint one Supreme Court justice and, with four of the current justices in their 70s, possibly more. Romney, who in the course of his campaigning has suspiciously morphed from pro-choice to pro-life, would deprive women of control over their own bodies, given the chance. Obama will protect that fundamental right.

It’s often said that character is what matters most in a candidate, because that’s the only way voters can predict how he will govern. Romney fails that test. His character is one that insults fully half of the country and that won’t play straight with the rest.

Meanwhile, Obama, despite his weaknesses – which include a health care reform that does too little to control costs – has several things going for him. For one, General Motors is still a functioning company, with a high-tech plant employing more than 1,000 people in the Town of Tonawanda. His policies saved the American automotive industry when the economy collapsed and the credit markets were frozen. Romney would have sacrificed them.

Obama also stabilized the banking industry and signed into law new regulations meant to prevent a recurrence of the legal larceny that helped to bring on the Great Recession. Romney would repeal those safeguards. Bin Laden is dead, and Obama’s foreign policy has crippled Iran’s economy without firing a shot – until Monday, Romney was saber-rattling on Iran – and helped bring about the demise of Moammar Gadhafi without loss of American blood.

It’s true that after a full term in office, the economy remains weak and the unemployment rate is stubbornly high. Obama has to take a share of the blame, as does a nihilistic Congress that hamstrung other efforts to restore prosperity.

More than that, though, this was not a routine recession. Not just the economy, but the infrastructure that makes it work were at risk of imminent collapse. It is not surprising that it is taking more than one presidential term to sort out a mess of that magnitude – a mess brought on, in part, by the kinds of policies that Romney endorses. It took more than four years for the country to dig out of the Great Depression. In the end, in fact, it took World War II to accomplish that goal.

So while we share the frustration that the economy is still sputtering, we also understand that it was never likely to be fixed in the relatively short time of four years. What it needs are wise policies brought about by a Congress and president who will work together in a responsible fashion to bring deficits under control.

Republicans will agree only to budget cuts that would devastate the country. What is needed is a combination of cuts, additional revenues and economic growth of the sort that Obama has already proposed. He is the candidate who is more likely to succeed in that.

We wish Obama were a better president than he has been, but we know he is a better president than Romney can dream of being. The country will be in better hands if he is re-elected.

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of editorials endorsing candidates in several key races. These endorsements by the editorial board are intended to aid voters in their evaluations of those seeking office. Whether you agree or disagree with our recommendations, we urge you to vote and take part in our electoral process. The Erie County Board of Elections (http://www.erieboe.com) has sample ballots and maps showing district boundaries.