There are two ways to run against Barack Obama: stewardship or ideology. You can run against his record or you can run against his ideas.
The stewardship case is pretty straightforward: the worst recovery in U.S. history, 42 consecutive months of 8-plus percent unemployment, declining economic growth — all achieved at a price of an additional $5 trillion of accumulated debt.
The ideological case is also simple. Just play in toto (and therefore in context) Obama’s Roanoke riff telling small-business owners: “You didn’t build that.” Real credit for your success belongs not to you — you think you did well because of your smarts and sweat? he asked mockingly — but to government that built the infrastructure without which you would have nothing.
Play it. Then ask: Is that the governing philosophy you want for this nation?
Mitt Romney’s preferred argument, however, is stewardship. Are you better off today than you were $5 trillion ago? Look at the wreckage around you. This presidency is a failure. I’m a successful businessman. I know how to fix things. Elect me, etc. etc.
Easy peasy, but highly risky. If you run against Obama’s performance in contrast to your own competence, you stake your case on persona. Is that how you want to compete against an opponent who is not just more likable and immeasurably cooler but spending millions to paint you as an unfeeling, out-of-touch, job-killing, private-equity plutocrat?
The ideological case, on the other hand, is not just appealing to a center-right country with twice as many conservatives as liberals, it is also explanatory. It underpins the stewardship argument. Obama’s ideology — and the program that followed — explains the failure of these four years.
What program? Obama laid it out boldly in a series of major addresses during the first months of his presidency. The roots of the nation’s crisis, he declared, were systemic. Fundamental change was required. He had come to deliver it. Hence his signature legislation:
First, the $831 billion stimulus that was going to “reinvest” in America and bring unemployment below 6 percent. We know about the unemployment. And the investment? Obama loves to cite great federal projects such as the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system. Fine. Name one thing of any note created by Obama’s Niagara of borrowed money. A modernized electric grid? Ports dredged to receive the larger ships soon to traverse a widened Panama Canal? Nothing of the sort. Solyndra, anyone?
Second, radical reform of health care that would reduce its ruinously accelerating cost: “Put simply,” he said, “our health-care problem is our deficit problem” — a financial hemorrhage drowning us in debt.
Except that Obamacare adds to spending. The Congressional Budget Office reports that Obamacare will incur $1.68 trillion of new expenditures in its first decade. To say nothing of the price of the uncertainty introduced by an impossibly complex remaking of one-sixth of the economy — discouraging hiring and expansion as trillions of investable private-sector dollars remain sidelined.
The third part of Obama’s promised transformation was energy. His cap-and-trade federal takeover was rejected by his own Democratic Senate. So the war on fossil fuels has been conducted unilaterally by bureaucratic fiat. Regulations that will kill coal. A no-brainer pipeline (Keystone) rejected lest Canadian oil sands be burned. (China will burn them instead.) A drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico that a federal judge severely criticized as illegal.
That was the program — now so unpopular that Obama barely mentions it. Obamacare got exactly two lines in this year’s State of the Union address. Seen any ads touting the stimulus? The drilling moratorium? Keystone?
Ideas matter. The 2010 election, the most ideological since 1980, saw the voters resoundingly reject a Democratic Party that was relentlessly expanding the power, spending, scope and reach of government.
It’s worse now. Those who have struggled to create a family business, a corner restaurant, a medical practice won’t take kindly to being told that their success is a result of government-built roads and bridges.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis famously said, “This election is not about ideology; it’s about competence.” He lost. If Republicans want to win, Obama’s deeply revealing, teleprompter-free you-didn’t-build-that confession of faith needs to be hung around his neck until Election Day. The third consecutive summer-of-recovery-that-never-came is attributable not just to Obama being in over his head but, even more important, to what’s in his head: a government-centered vision of the economy and society, and the policies that flow from it.
Four years of that and this is what you get.
Make the case and you win the White House.