Obama’s advisers will tell anyone who will listen that they will make the 2012 presidential race about values and vision. Voters will be faced with two sets of priorities and two sets of ideas about where the country and the world are headed — and will choose accordingly.

But the problem is this: Republicans also have a say in what the election will be about. And they will do all they can to make it about Obama’s policies and the current state of the economy — about the stark fact that Obama had four years to fix things, and that people are still suffering.

So how will Obama rebut the GOP charge that he failed on the economy? I posed the question to one of Obama’s senior advisers the other day, and he acknowledged it’s a central challenge.

“You start by saying, the high unemployment rate, the inequity, these derive specifically from the policies that Rick Perry or Mitt Romney want to bring back,” the adviser replied. “So, yeah, tough times. Central cause of the tough times? What they want to bring back. The president has done a lot of things: save the auto industry, staved off the worst. We’ve had 20 straight months of private sector job creation. Why on earth would we want to go back to that nightmare?”

Obama’s advisers well know that they will have to paint an extremely vivid picture of what our economic doldrums were like in the immediate wake of GOP control of the White House, to drive home the stakes of a return to failed GOP ideas. And they intend to do that. But will voters buy the idea that electing a new Republican president means a return to old GOP ways? That argument failed in 2010. Polls suggested people didn’t associate Congressional Republicans with the former president’s failings. The difference in a presidential race is that a single candidate’s ideas receive tremendous national scrutiny, and hopefully the economy will have turned around more. But there’s no telling whether it will work this time, either.

Meanwhile, Republicans will ask relentlessly: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago”? Leading Republicans like Romney and Mitch McConnell already argue routinely that Obama made a bad situation worse. You’ll be hearing that phrase a lot — it distances the speaker from Bush’s failures while also saddling Obama with blame for the ongoing crisis.

As Steve Benen notes, there are a variety of metrics that show that things are indeed better now than they were when Obama took office, even if we still have a long way to go. But this puts the Obama team in a position of arguing that things could have been worse, had Obama’s policies not been implemented. That’s a delicate case to make when people are still suffering.

As the senior official told me, the reelection team will hopefully be able to point to dozens of straight months of private sector job creation. And the successful auto bailout will be central. Obama’s team will aggressively highlight it as a case in which Obama’s call for government intervention in the economy produced an unqualified success, and as a case where the GOP candidate’s ideological blinkers and lack of judgment would have led to disaster.

Obama’s team wants the election to be about values, vision, GOP obstructionism, Romney’s lack of a core (if Romney is the nominee), and the prospect of a return to the policies that landed us in the current mess. But how Obama handles the question Republicans want the race to be about — you had your four years; why shouldn’t Americans conclude that your policies have been an abject failure? — will also be central to his hopes.