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 another $5 trillion of accumulated debt.
The ideological case is also simple. Just play in its entirety 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 if that's the governing philosophy you want?
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. Easy peasy, but 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 explains the failure of these four years.
Obama laid out his program 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. And the investment? Obama loves to cite great federal projects such as the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system. But name one thing of note created by Obama's borrowed money. 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 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.
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 by fiat — regulations that will kill coal, a no-brainer pipeline rejected, 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 two lines in the 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 voters resoundingly reject a Democratic Party that was relentlessly expanding the power, spending, scope and reach of government.
It's worse now. Those who struggled to build businesses won't take kindly to being told that their success is a result of government-built roads and bridges.
If Republicans want to win, Obama's 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 it. Four years of that and this is what you get. Make the case and you win the White House.
Krauthammer writes for The Washington Post.