Four years ago, Barack Obama offered an inspiring message of hope and change to an uneasy nation bogged down in two wars and facing economic collapse. The rosy idealism quickly gave way to the harsh realities of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The recovery has proven more difficult than anyone imagined. But conditions would be far worse without the president's steady leadership. This is not the time to reverse course and return to the failed policies of the past. Without hesitation, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Barack Obama for re-election as president.By many measures, the economy is improving steadily even if growth remains painfully slow. There have been 31 straight months of job growth, and more than 5 million private sector jobs have been created. The unemployment rate is down to 7.8 percent — not great, but the same as when Obama took office. The stock market has come back, new housing starts are the highest in four years and housing prices in Tampa Bay and other areas are rising. The financial industry is stable, interest rates remain low and corporate profits are healthy. There is still too much economic pain, but America is better off than most of the rest of the industrialized world.Among the Group of 7 industrialized countries, only three economies have climbed above the peaks they hit before the recession: Canada, Germany and the United States. France, Japan, Britain and Italy are in worse shape. So are Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece. Obama's economic policies clearly had a positive impact.The economic stimulus package, which Mitt Romney and his Republican allies deride as a failure, had its flaws but stopped the collapse. It preserved or created up to 3 million jobs, and it invested in smart projects such as expanding U.S. 19 in Pinellas County and connecting the Port of Tampa with Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County. The auto company bailout, which Romney opposed, preserved jobs and rejuvenated the industry. The Dodd-Frank financial regulations, which Romney would repeal, protect consumers and force banks to act more responsibly. Undoing those reforms would be a mistake and invite the abuses that contributed to the economic crisis.The Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature legislative achievement, offers sweeping health care reform that presidents from both political parties unsuccessfully pursued for decades. More than 30 million uninsured Americans will get health coverage. Millions of young adults can stay on their parents' insurance policies, and insurers no longer can refuse to cover children with pre-existing conditions. In 2014, insurers also will have to accept adults with pre-existing conditions, and most people will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty. This is a historic step toward universal health care and a fairer sharing of costs, and it should be improved upon rather than repealed as Romney promises. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the guts of the law, and it is time to work as hard on containing health care costs as on providing access to care.Although he came to the job with limited foreign policy experience, Obama has been reasonably sure-footed. His appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state reflected the Democrat's self-confidence to invite a former rival and wife of a former president to join his administration. Obama followed through on his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, which Romney called a mistake. The president's temporary troop surge in Afghanistan stabilized the country and checked the Taliban's momentum. Yet the president recognizes Americans have no appetite for a never-ending war for diminishing returns. He pledges to pull combat forces out of Afghanistan in 2014, while Romney remains fuzzy about his intentions.Romney suggests Obama has been too timid on foreign policy, but it took courage to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Republican's saber-rattling about the violence in Syria and Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon is particularly concerning. This nation has neither the resources nor the appetite for another discretionary military adventure. Obama's mix of diplomacy, coalition-building and tough economic sanctions remains the smarter approach.The differences on social issues are stark. With congressional Republicans forcing a stalemate on immigration, Obama took the initiative to let young undocumented immigrants of promise stay in this country legally if they are in school, high school graduates or serve in the military.In contrast, Romney suggested a policy of "self-deportation'' but now acknowledges 11 million illegal immigrants cannot be sent to their home countries. He says he would not revoke exemptions granted under Obama's order but would not allow new ones. Any hope for broad immigration reform to keep and attract the best and the brightest regardless of their birthplace lies with the incumbent Democrat.So do prospects for continued progress on civil rights. Obama has come out in support of same-sex marriage, which is legal in six states, and he lifted the illogical "don't ask, don't tell'' policy in the military. Romney opposes same sex-marriage and supported "don't ask, don't tell'' but now says he would not reinstate the policy.The stakes for women in this election are even clearer. Obama has a particularly strong record on issues important to women, from equal pay to access to health care to education. In stark contrast to Romney, the president steadfastly supports abortion rights. The next president could appoint perhaps two Supreme Court justices, and those appointments could determine whether a woman's right to control her own body is overturned. Romney, who supported abortion rights as Massachusetts governor and now opposes them with limited exceptions, cannot be trusted to stand up to social conservatives who view overturning Roe vs. Wade as a litmus test for prospective justices.Reducing the federal deficit and shoring up Medicare remain the nation's most pressing challenges. Obama fumbled two opportunities to make progress, ignoring the recommendations of a commission he created and letting a potential deficit reduction deal with House Speaker John Boehner slip away.Still, the president at least proposes some specifics to bring the nation's finances into better order. He would end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years. He relies on artful accounting, and he will have to make a more serious attempt. But the president's bottom line is right: Reducing the deficit will require a combination of spending cuts and additional revenue.Obama also recognizes the importance of maintaining Medicare and strengthening its finances. The Affordable Care Act extends Medicare's life by eight years, to 2024. The law's $716 billion in Medicare savings and the creation of an independent panel to recommend more efficiencies are positive steps. There is more work to be done, but the path is the correct one.In contrast, Romney would transform Medicare into a voucher program that likely would force many future seniors to pay more for less coverage. He rejects raising even $1 of new revenue for every $10 in spending cuts, and he promises to cut taxes by $5 trillion but won't say which loopholes or tax breaks he would end to cover the cost. Meanwhile, he wants to reduce the federal deficit while increasing spending on defense beyond what even the Pentagon requests — even though the United States spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. This fanciful math could only add up to deep cuts in spending on education and other domestic programs — and tax increases on the middle class.We wish the economic recovery was more vigorous, and we would like the president to present a sharper vision for a second term. But Obama has capably steered the nation through an incredibly difficult period at home and abroad, often with little help from Congress. The next four years will not be easy for whoever occupies the Oval Office, but Obama has been tested by harsh circumstance and proven himself worthy of a second term.For president of the United States, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Barack Obama.