Government grows in size and power as the individual shrinks into dependency. Until the tipping point where dependency becomes the new norm — as it is in Europe, where even minor retrenchment of the entitlement state has led to despair and, for the more energetic, rioting.

An Obama second term means that the movement toward European-style social democracy continues, in part by legislation, in part by executive decree. The American experiment — the more individualistic, energetic, innovative, risk-taking model of democratic governance — continues to recede, yielding to the supervised life of the entitlement state.

If Obama loses, however, his presidency becomes a historical parenthesis, a passing interlude of overreaching hyper-liberalism, rejected by a center-right country that is 80 percent nonliberal.

Should they summon the skill and dexterity, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could guide the country to the restoration of a more austere and modest government with more restrained entitlements and a more equitable and efficient tax code. Those achievements alone would mark a new trajectory — a return to what Reagan started three decades ago.