This month, during a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., and in an interview on "60 Minutes," President Barack Obama laid out the broad contours of his re-election strategy. Republicans would be wise to examine his words and prepare accordingly.
Mr. Obama will frame this election as a fight for the middle class. He told his Kansas audience that America was once a place where "hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried." Now, as he informed "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft, "the rules are rigged" against "middle-class families."
The president's tack is, in part, a reaction to his precarious standing among voters with high-school education or less. In a Gallup poll of Dec. 18, for example, his job approval with these voters—usually described as blue-collar workers—was 40%, down 26 points from January 2009. He can't win if his numbers in this group stay so low.
Mr. Obama will make "fairness" a major theme. He declared in Kansas that his goal was to "restore balance, restore fairness," and he then told Mr. Kroft that a "balanced approach" to the nation's deficit crisis required "everybody to do their fair share."
But resentment is not an effective political appeal. Americans tolerate unequal outcomes if they believe people have equal opportunity. Crude class warfare like Mr. Obama's has never been successful in presidential campaigns (consider candidates Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry). In fact, a Gallup poll of Nov. 28-Dec. 1 shows that fewer Americans (45%) now believe income inequality "represents a problem that needs to be fixed" than believed that in 1998 (52%).
Republicans have an arsenal jammed with rejoinders: Taxes shouldn't be raised while the economy is fragile, most of those targeted for tax increases are small businesses, and, as to fairness, the top 25% of earners paid 86.3% of all federal income taxes in 2008.
Republicans can argue that Democratic class warfare would penalize achievement and diminish prosperity. That Mr. Obama's goal is redistribution, not success. That over the past three years this approach has resulted in persistently high unemployment, anemic growth and economic hardship.
In Kansas, Mr. Obama's narrative was that greedy bankers, aided by regulators who "looked the other way," were what "plunged our economy and the world into a crisis." But the GOP can easily counterpunch, noting the leading role that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored enterprises, had in bringing about the financial crisis. Republicans can pound Mr. Obama for having (as a senator) filibustered efforts to rein in these government-sponsored enterprises and (as president) giving them an open draw on the Treasury. That bailout has cost $141 billion so far with no end in sight. This argument must be joined with a substantive, serious agenda to attack crony capitalism and corporate welfare. This is the right position on the merits, as well as politically wise.
As he campaigns, Mr. Obama will loudly offer a laundry list of achievements. In his "60 Minutes" interview, for example, he suggested he'd put his accomplishments up "against any president—with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R. and Lincoln."
This claim is not just staggeringly arrogant. The reality is that voters don't like Mr. Obama's signature accomplishments.
His stimulus didn't produce the results he promised: An Ipsos/Reuters poll of Nov. 4, for example, found 62% of Americans believe the stimulus packages have "just created debt" rather than "helped the economy." His health-care plan, signed into law on March 23, 2010, is the only major piece of modern social legislation to become less popular after it passed. According to Huffington Post's Pollster.com, the average disapproval was 52% then; it is 55.5% now.
Lacking a popular record or constructive agenda, Mr. Obama will resort to ad hominem attacks on Republicans. The president, who in 2008 spoke constantly about healing divisions, seems to relish being an attack dog. So he'll say Republicans don't just disagree with him; they want to harm the nation. He'll label any dissent as unpatriotic. He told Mr. Kroft that by opposing tax increases, Republicans refused to "put country ahead of party."
Dividing Americans along class lines and pretending the last three years are someone else's responsibility may be therapeutic for the president and his liberal followers. But it's hard to see it working.
America is not a nation of amnesiacs: Republicans can use the president's own words and actions to constantly remind swing voters (who still like him personally) of his disappointing policies. And like Ronald Reagan, the GOP nominee can reassure voters that, unlike the incumbent, he is up to the job by offering far-reaching reforms to jump-start the economy.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, December 21, 2011.