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Editorial: High hopes to sober realism

A presidential challenger who appears to believe in so little does not deserve to win

The common view in Europe of Mitt Romney as a monster of the ultra-capitalist religious right is exaggerated. As governor of Massachusetts he was a pragmatic leader on the liberal wing of the Republican Party. For Europeans to whom American religion is unfamiliar, Mormonism seems a threatening cult rather than a more or less mainstream form of Christianity. Equally, we Europeans are unused to primary elections, and so tend to place too much weight on what American candidates say to win their party's nomination.

As it happens, Governor Romney, with his Rushmore-ready looks, his wholesome family and his personal wealth, has played a textbook campaign, turning sharply to the centre after the primaries. He seized the chance afforded by the first TV debate to turn the momentum in his favour, surprising a campaign-rusty Barack Obama with his vigour and moderation.

In the constrained US system, the policies of President Romney would probably not be so vastly different from those of a second-term President Obama as might be supposed. You cannot always judge presidents by what they say before they are elected. George W Bush, after all, criticised Bill Clinton for his interventionism abroad. But when, in the third debate, Governor Romney said of the terrorist threat, "we can't kill our way out of this mess", it did not suggest a great appetite for foreign adventurism.

If Governor Romney is, perhaps, less of an awful prospect than he is usually painted outside the US, President Obama's case for re-election is less compelling than the inspiring summons of four years ago. There have been disappointments in his presidency – of course, there have been. His failure to close Guantanamo Bay and his increased use of drones in Pakistan have been depressing. But he has seen the country – and hence much of the world – through the economic crisis. Symbolically, he saved the US car industry when Governor Romney said it should go to the wall. Last week's jobs numbers suggested that, although unemployment is still high, job creation is strong.

He delivered healthcare reform – it is not perfect, and it looks expensive, complex and bureaucratic to us Europeans, but it is better than what went before, and millions of Americans will benefit. Importantly, he persisted with it when many of his advisers wanted to give up; just as he decided, against advice, to support limited intervention in Libya led by the Europeans; and just as he decided, as advisers hesitated, to authorise the raid on Osama bin Laden.

For all that President Obama has fallen short of the impossible hopes invested in him; and for all that he has sometimes seemed cold, aloof or even lazy, he has taken big, lonely decisions and mostly got them right. Against such a record, a challenger who appears to believe in so little does not deserve to win, no matter how textbook. And how fitting that, a week before polling day, the one vestige of ideological difference between the candidates – President Obama's belief in active government – should be set a real-world test in the form of Hurricane Sandy.

In an election dominated by negative campaigning, it is, on these grounds, Governor Romney who would be the worse president. As for Mr Obama, the naive emotion of the "hopey, changey thing" should give way to a clear-eyed yet enthusiastic endorsement. It would be in the interest of the US and the world if American voters re-elected their President.