On policy, on vision, on temperament and skills, America's voters have rarely faced a clearer choice. With hope and enthusiasm, we endorse BARACK OBAMA for president of the United States.

These are serious times. The nation is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have gone on for too long, at too high a cost, with too little gained. Our standing in the world has been brought down by the mistakes of our leaders. Here at home, the economy is in a tailspin, brought on by greed, debt and lax oversight. Gridlock in Washington has left unaddressed problems that plague millions of Americans: the high cost of health care, the loss of jobs overseas, crumbling infrastructure, unsustainable entitlement programs.

Much of this can be left at the door of President George W. Bush, who leaves office after eight years with record low approval ratings. He has even brought down the standards by which we judge those who would succeed him. Compared to Bush, anyone with the patience to read a policy briefing or the maturity to listen to opposing viewpoints, let alone seek them out, looks like a statesman.

Either Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama, the two survivors of the long campaign that climaxes Tuesday, would be an improvement. This page noted as much in January, when we endorsed both in the Massachusetts primary. But the similarities end there, and it is the long campaign that has served to distinguish them from each other.

Obama started the campaign as an intriguing unknown, notable for his mixed ethnicity, his relative youth and his rhetorical gifts. In one test after another, he demonstrated the skills the nation needs in a leader: A sharp mind, a careful tongue, a steadiness under fire, an ability to manage people, to articulate a clear message, to pursue a consistent strategy, while adjusting his tactics as needed.

McCain, by contrast, has been a disappointment. Based on his 2000 campaign, we thought he'd separate himself from Bush's failed policies. But he embraced them instead, pandering to the GOP's conservative base. Even after winning the nomination, he articulated no independent vision. Instead of giving voters reasons to unite around him, his haphazard campaign has dishonestly and shamefully attacked his opponent.

The nominee's first presidential decision is choosing a running-mate. Obama chose an experienced party elder who could help him govern as well as campaign. McCain, putting campaign before country, chose a stranger with more pizzazz than experience. Few could rest easy with Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency.

As summer turned to fall, the economic crisis gave the candidates what Colin Powell called "a final exam." Obama reacted with a calm competence. He consulted widely and measured his public statements with care. Working with colleagues in Congress, he outlined principles to guide the formulation of a bailout proposal much better than the blank check the Bush administration had sought, and pushed for its approval.

By contrast, McCain used the crisis to showboat. He pretended to suspend his campaign, tried to avoid the first presidential debate, and had little to say at a White House summit he had demanded. He never articulated a clear position on the best response to the crisis, and he failed to bring his fellow Republicans on board with the proposal he supported.

Beyond the campaign theatrics, there are distinct policy differences on the ballot. Obama's foreign policy vision is built on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, emphasizing economic development and respect between nations. McCain's is backward-looking, built on Cold War assumptions and the neoconservative theories that led the Bush administration terribly astray.

A serious debate over economic policy has been nearly smothered by posturing over "Joe the Plumber" and partisanship that applies the brand of "socialism" to a moderate value of sharing the wealth. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said this week that, since the late 1970s, $700 billion in wealth has been transferred every year from the lower 80 percent of the population to the top 1 percent. That is redistribution of wealth, and the inequity it has created threatens the long-term health of the economy.

Obama's preference is for policies that restore the economic security of the middle class, that invest in the infrastructure on which the economy depends and provide the regulatory oversight needed to avoid disasters like the meltdown in financial services. McCain offers more of the same trickle-down tax cuts and instinctive deregulation that helped bring on our current woes.

On policy, on vision, on temperament and skills, America's voters have rarely faced a clearer choice. With hope and enthusiasm, we endorse BARACK OBAMA for president of the United States.

The MetroWest Daily News