The Chicago Tribune’s 2012 endorsement of President Obama in Sunday's paper (the piece appeared on the website on Friday) is a shadow of its 2008 Senator Obama endorsement.

The latter, bestowed some ten days earlier at this point four years ago, and with far more muscular language, was an all-out rave. The writer noted with enormous pride that not only was it was the first time in the paper’s history that it had endorsed “the Democratic Party’s nominee for president,” but also that, if Obama were to win, the paper would have endorsed the first African-American to hold the nation’s highest office. In unequivocal terms, the Tribune in 2008 chose Obama over John McCain as the one to bring about “a change in the way we deal with one another in politics and government.” There must be “an end to the savagery and a return to civility in politics.” And Obama, the writer implied, is the one who could accomplish that sea change in national politics.

Four years later, the Trib’s editorial board criticized both Obama and Romney for not being willing to take gutsy positions, or make hard choices for fear of offending the ultra-thin slice of voters who could decide whether the Obamas stay put in that nice house or the Romneys move in on them. The designated writer enumerated Obama’s deficiencies and Mitt Romney’s strengths, as well as Obama’s strengths and Romney’s deficiencies. At one point in reading the long editorial, the endorsement writer seemed on the brink of declaring, “Never mind, we guess we’ll go with Romney.”

The Tribune’s endorsement was more of a surprise, say, than that of The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which, over the last few days, also endorsed Obama. He is, after all, Illinois’s and Chicago’s favorite son, but, given the paper’s regular criticism of the president, I entertained the notion that its editorial board could go the “plague on both your houses” route and endorse no one.

For those who read through to the endorsement’s end, the final sentences seemed almost to approach that. The paper issued a plea, a warning, to Obama and Romney to consider America’s children and do something and do it fast about the malignant national debt: If the debt crisis is not addressed, our children “will condemn us for living ruinously beyond our means and forcing the enormous payback onto them—a criminal act no previous American generation has committed against those that came next.
 Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney, whichever of you occupies the White House for the next four years, that praise or condemnation will be your legacy.” (The end, actually, was tipped in the endorsement’s headline—“Our children's America”—and sub head: “What kind of America will we leave our children? The Tribune endorses President Obama and urges him to address the nation's debt crisis.”) Hardly a ringing endorsement of the president, and not quite so strong a slam at Romney, given that, unlike Obama, Romney has not yet had the chance tackle the deficit (although the editorial does blast Romney for his phony math, lack of specifics in his grand plan, and the impossibility of getting to a balanced budget given his his $5 trillion in tax cuts.)

For anyone awaiting the endorsement decision of Chicago’s other daily, remember that last winter then-Sun-Times publisher John Barron and current editorial page editor Tom McNamee announced in an editorial that the paper would no longer endorse candidates. Barron, who left the Sun-Times late last May, and McNamee explained that the paper, like “most good newspapers today,” strives to “appeal to the widest possible readership, including people of every political persuasion, by serving up the best and most unbiased news coverage possible. They want to inform you, not spin you.” The two men pledged that the paper would deliver “clear and accurate information about who the candidates are and where they stand on the issues.”

Here’s betting that no-endorsement decision will be scrapped, that the paper’s new owners will want a say in the next mayoral race, gubernatorial race, and U.S. Senate race—should Dick Durbin take a cabinet job in a second Obama term, and/or should the recuperating Mark Kirk (who has been remarkably silent lately) step down or decide not to run again when his term expires in 2016. (In answer to my question about whether the Sun-Times would reverse its no-endorsement decision and whether—in light particularly of the many close congressional races here—he regretted that decision, McNamee answered in an email: “What we said at the time of that decision is that we'd let the editorial speak for itself, … and I'm going to leave it at that.”)

The value of newspaper endorsements has been a subject of debate for many years. Anyone who watched the Sunday morning news programs yesterday heard time and again pundits’ opinions that voters don’t care whom newspapers endorse. [On CNN last week, Daily Beast media critic Howard Kurtz offered a more nuanced view: Endorsements “matter a lot” in local elections, and, he said, during the Iowa caucuses every four years the Des Moines Register’s endorsement is “worth its weight in gold,” but in a national election it matters much less. Still, Kurtz said about national endorsements, “It’s like chicken soup. It doesn’t hurt.” [Note: in the Iowa caucus in 2008, the Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, but Obama won Iowa, the key first step on his road to the White House.]

Surprisingly, on Saturday, that same newspaper, the largest paper in swing-state Iowa, endorsed Romney, switching from its endorsement of Obama in 2008.