WASHINGTON – There are two ways to run against Barack Obama: stewardship or
ideology. You can run against his record or you can run against his
The stewardship case is pretty straightforward: the worst recovery
in US history, 42 consecutive months of 8-plus percent unemployment, declining
economic growth – all achieved at a price of another $5 trillion of accumulated
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
Play it. Then ask: Is that the governing philosophy you want for
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
What program? Obama laid it out boldly early in 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.
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 healthcare that would reduce
its ruinously accelerating cost: “Put simply,” he said, “our healthcare problem
is our deficit problem” – a financial hemorrhage drowning us in
Except that the CBO reports that Obamacare will cost $1.68 trillion
of new spending 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 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
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
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 to what’s in his head: a government-centered
vision of the economy and society, and the policies that flow from
Four years of that and this is what you get.
Make the case and
you win the White House.
Charles Krauthammer’s email address is
firstname.lastname@example.org. (c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group