President Obama wants to make this year's election an us-versus-them affair, to rile the masses against the wealthy and mobilize government as his instrument of revenge. Mitt Romney has had a hard time fighting back. After all, his personal success and riches are the argument's primary targets. The president has been pushing the public to hate the man from Wall Street, and the polls show the tactic is working.
But it shouldn't, or at least it shouldn't for long.
For one thing, the economy is improving - unevenly, yes, but it's probably on the rise. That's supposed to be a problem for Mr. Romney, whose election prospects are said to increase the slower the economy grows. In fact, a brightening outlook is exactly what the Republican needs to defuse the president's populism.
The better the economy gets, the less angry voters will be, especially at people like Mr. Romney who are doing well financially. Why, after years of waiting, should the average voter continue to envy the kind of person he finally has a chance to become?
A better economy is a benefit for the president, who can claim credit for the uptick. But it also deflates the public's disdain of the "1 percent" and gives Mr. Romney room to introduce another line of debate.
He needs to hammer government itself.
The president has chosen the federal government as his instrument for income redistribution. He wants to increase taxes on upper-income individuals and multinational corporations, especially oil companies, and to use that extra revenue to expand programs that help the poor, the environment and other favored projects.
But Washington has fallen into disrepute. It can't seem to get anything right these days. For a Republican, that's fertile ground.
Take examples of bureaucratic incompetence this spring: the General Services Administration's conference scandal and the Secret Service's prostitution debacle. Both will be spotlighted during lengthy congressional hearings and, in that way, offer a major opening for the GOP nominee.
There's more. Mr. Romney can and should say that the federal government is a floundering enterprise. He can cite Solyndra and other renewable-energy failures as perfect examples of how Washington can botch even the best intentions. The war in Afghanistan - Mr. Obama's war of choice - has been a mess and an embarrassment and is about to end in defeat. More than that, the federal budget deficit has gone nowhere but up and threatens America's future.
With examples like these, why should anyone trust government to correct the wrongs that the president identifies?
Mr. Romney can legitimately say that as a career-long business executive, he is better equipped than the president to rein in the central government and put it on the limited, restrained course that it obviously requires. In short, he should campaign against government as fervently as Mr. Obama campaigns against the power class.
This won't be easy for Mr. Romney. He has never displayed much antipathy for government - in fact, quite the opposite. He's more of a big-government Republican than a Tea Party radical. That, of course, was his biggest problem during the overlong primary season. Fiscal conservatives never accepted him as one of their own.
But with the nomination in his grasp, Mr. Romney can reinvent himself as a born-again government reformer. He's shown signs of doing so already. But he needs to go full-throated and specify what parts of the government he would shrink and how he would overhaul the reviled tax code.
The advantage of doing so is that it plays to Republican strength and exposes Democratic weakness. Even Mr. Obama concedes that government retrenchment will be needed in the face of annual, trillion-dollar budget shortfalls.
Mr. Romney can say he's the right guy to manage the overweening, poorly administered federal government back to a size that makes sense. Mr. Obama will have trouble making the same argument given his history of missteps.
The president needs government to be well regarded if he is to sell his populist policies. Mr. Romney would be wise to prevent him from making that case.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.
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