President Barack Obama is in a bind. All the obvious strategies available to an incumbent president running for re-election are foreclosed to him.
He can’t run a “Morning in America” campaign in the style of Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996. In those years, the country was doing well and felt it. A majority of the public now thinks that we are “on the wrong track” as a nation rather than headed in “the right direction.” The already dismal jobs picture is growing bleaker: Payroll growth slowed and the unemployment rate rose in May, to 8.2 percent. If voters make their decision based on the state of the country, Obama will lose.
Few OptionsRunning on his unfinished agenda looks no more promising. Obama’s main policy initiative in recent months -- the Buffett rule to impose a minimum tax level on people with large amounts of capital gains and dividends -- polls well. But it’s politically small. Working out an unfair kink in the tax code (to look at it in a positive light) can’t carry Obama to re-election.
Obama could pledge to fight for immigration reform in his second term. But his failure to expend any capital on the issue when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, or at any point since, would make such a pledge seem like the repetition of old talking points. And the reason Obama didn’t make more of an effort -- the existence of serious opposition, even among Democratic voters, to the kind of reform he favors -- hasn’t gone away.
To win the election, then, Obama has to run a negative campaign against Mitt Romney and the Republicans. All signs point to his doing exactly that. But some kinds of attacks are more likely to help Obama than others.
In recent weeks, the president’s aides have been attacking Romney for saddling companies with debt when he was in the private sector, increasing the liabilities of Massachusetts when he was governor and creating few jobs in either capacity.
It is hard to see these tactics paying off. Federal debt has increased under Obama by orders of magnitude more than any sum Romney has overseen. If the Democrats talk about debt, they will be prolonging a conversation they can’t win. And while Massachusetts may have ranked 47th among states in job creation under Romney, the country would be delighted to have the 4.7 percent unemployment rate he left it with.
Another temptation will be to attack Romney on social issues. “Let’s be clear what he would do as president,” Obama adviser David Plouffe recently said. “Potentially, abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services.” Most Americans don’t want all abortions banned, or contraception made inaccessible. But Romney’s election wouldn’t yield either result, and most people know it.
Entitlement ReformObama’s best bet is probably to hit Romney again and again over his plans for Social Security and Medicare. That’s a big issue: Nothing Romney is proposing would be more consequential. And it’s an issue where Obama can draw on strong public sentiments. Most people believe the programs need reform. But in a Pew poll in 2011, Americans favored preserving benefits to reducing deficits by almost 2-to-1. By 56 percent to 33 percent, they worried more about Social Security benefit cuts than about tax increases. In a March 2012 poll, just 26 percent of the public favored the Republican idea of changing Medicare so that beneficiaries pick a health plan and get a “fixed sum of money” to meet the costs.
A defense of the two entitlement programs as now structured would not be the most edifying of spectacles. It would require Obama to foster the false impression that the approaching insolvency of our welfare state has painless solutions. But it would force Romney to confront the issue head-on, and the country would get the important debate it deserves rather than months of sniping about trivial side- issues and non-issues.
It seems more likely than any of Obama’s other options to win him a second term.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)