As we look back on 2011, let's review the various campaign themes the White House has been trying out. The first version was "Things Could Have Been Worse," that President Obama's greatest achievement was "saving this country from a great depression." Hmm. Not a great campaign slogan: Four More Years of Not a Great Depression.
So after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed his federal budget in April, the White House pivoted to deficit reduction, but according to the Los Angeles Times, staffers soon decided that was a "mistake" in the face of stubborn unemployment numbers and outrage from the left on entitlements. So much for that.
Next was "We Can't Wait," meaning executive orders from the president in the face of congressional inaction. Someone in the White House forgot that the same guy who came up with "We Can't Wait" also brought us "Yes We Can." Scratch that.
So as the Occupy movement geared up, the White House jumped on the "We Are the 99 Percent" bandwagon, along with organized labor and college kids who voted for Obama in 2008. Lucky for them, the Occupy folks came along with statistics showing 30 years of rising income disparity, providing Obama's campaign speechwriters with a nice distraction from stagnant jobs numbers and sluggish growth predictions. Folks, we have a winner!
Here's how the president put the "middle-class fairness" theme in one of his December weekly addresses:
Today, America faces a make-or-break moment for the middle class. After the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, some still want to return to the same policies that got us into this mess.… They're part of a philosophy that says we're better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. But I have a different vision. I believe that we are greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone engages in fair play.
That's full of buzz words. "Fair play" means more regulation of banks and consumer credit, as the president explained later in his address. We like that "everyone gets a fair shot," because we like getting a fair shot, an equal opportunity, at the American Dream. We like taking risks because with the chance of failure comes the hope of unlimited success. That's why we like biographies about Steve Jobs and movies about Mark Zuckerberg; in an earlier time, it would have been Horatio Alger books.
But when the White House says "everyone gets a fair shot," it doesn't mean equality of opportunity, it means equality of result. "We are greater together than we are on our own," says the president, because that's safer. You're never on your own, because you've got a federal guarantee of fairness. That's why the administration took over the student loan business, for example, and the healthcare industry, and bailed out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They've removed some of the risks in life, but at a price to us all.
To the White House, "everyone does their fair share" means that the rich pay more in taxes. To the rest of us, "fair share" means that more Americans need to pay taxes in the first place. We're close to a majority of Americans not paying any federal income taxes now, and with a broader tax base, we could have more revenue and lower rates for all. That's actually what "everyone does their fair share" argues first and foremost: that everyone does pay. An across-the-board flat tax would be good for our democracy and good for our economy. And it would end the dangerous class warfare rhetoric that is dividing our country.
As he has so many times before when he sets up rhetorical false choices, the president exaggerates what "fair play" means to his opponents. No one is seriously arguing for an end to all federal regulations, for everyone "to fend for themselves and play by their own rules," as he put it. Democrats are pushing a new absurdist argument, that Republicans want us to live without government at all, in a scene out of Lord of the Flies. Voters are too smart for that.
There's a real feeling that the government is holding the economy back, is picking winners and losers, and will step in to bail out everyone from the auto industry to big banks to huge green energy firms. People see that small businesses and entrepreneurs—the middle-class ones who can't afford the legions of lawyers, lobbyists, and compliance officers that the big guys have—are left standing on the outside looking in, not investing and not hiring new workers. Most Americans can see very clearly that too much federal control is stifling the middle class.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently wrote about the "straight line" promised by the big-government advocates on the left, and the "jagged line" offered by risk-takers in the markets. "The straight line of gradual and controlled growth is what the statists promise but can never deliver. The jagged line offers no guarantees but has a powerful record of delivering the most prosperity and the most opportunity to the most people." Choosing the jagged line means taking a risk, something the White House is arguing against. Choosing the straight line means doing what Europe has done.
That's why this election is not only a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, but also one of the most important elections in generations—because it gives voters a clear choice about the role of the government in the free market.
That's a debate the right would love to have. Let's hope Obama stays with this theme.