As Small a President as He Can Be

Obama can't run on his record--so he's left with petty attacks and paltry ideas

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Woodrow Wilson once said the President "is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can." In his re-election bid, President Obama is determined to be as small as he can be.

He's gone from vaporous uplift in 2008 to dreary minutiae in 2012. Listening to him on the stump, you would have no idea that the economy is sunk in a subpar recovery and the nation's balance sheet is deep in the red, let alone that the welfare state is in crisis throughout the Western world. The President's approach amounts to fiddling while Athens burns, or at least defaults.

There is no signature proposal for his second term, no discernible agenda. It's all day-to-day political jabbing and microinitiatives, often with specific constituencies in mind. He is running Bill Clinton's relentlessly small-ball 1996 re-election campaign, except without the centrism or the peace and prosperity.

The state of the country denies him the incumbent's preferred tack of running on a successful record. Top Obama adviser David Axelrod gave this away on a Sunday show recently when he said the President had to be re-elected because we couldn't afford to stay on our current course. Did Axelrod miss the past 3 years, when his boss occupied the most powerful office in the land? "Change you can believe in" isn't a recyclable theme. Once, the wag said, is enough. Twice is once too much.

Obama is reduced to deploying the piddling in the service of the petty. He has put the full weight of his office behind a proposal meant mainly to highlight the personal wealth of his opponent. This is the famous Buffett rule. It would ensure that the very wealthy (like Mitt Romney) no longer benefit from the favorable tax treatment of capital gains and investment (like Mitt Romney) to pay a lower federal income tax rate than middle-income taxpayers (like you know who).

This is very clever--and very silly. The deficit last year was $1.3 trillion. With the Buffett rule in place, it would have been $1.295 trillion. Last year the tax credit for energy-efficient improvements to homes cost almost as much as the Buffett rule will raise annually ($4.7 billion on average). The President's proposal for keeping a low interest rate on some college loans, at $6 billion next year, costs more. The Buffett rule is government by catchphrase.

In the same vein, the President recently vowed to hunt down and stop energy "speculators," lest they "reap millions while millions of American families get the short end of the stick." Good luck with that. No one seriously believes--surely not even Obama--that speculation is responsible for this year's rise in oil prices, now beginning to recede. The President is sending the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on a make-believe mission after nonexistent villains because it sounds good. On the election's most central issue, the economy, Obama is stuck in a minor key. He offers no major reforms in taxes or entitlements, no new stimulus, no departures whatsoever. He is obsessed with the marginalia of green energy, which is less than 10% of the energy sector and is prone to a bust unless the subsidies keep on rolling. He is content to watch his party's majority in the Senate desperately maneuver to avoid the pain of even voting on a budget. Evasion is the order of the day.

What the Obama campaign lacks in substantive heft it will try to make up in relish for tearing apart Romney. He will be portrayed as out of touch, strange, secretive and--occasionally by Obama allies--Mormon. In this highly personal demolition, Romney has already been made out as hostile to women and cruel to dogs. Someday political scientists will marvel that a top adviser to the President of the United States once joined a drumbeat over an opponent's transporting his dog in a kennel on the roof of his car ... in the 1980s.

It is a moment in the nation's life that cries out for a clash of big ideas in a conversation that treats the public like adults. It wasn't so long ago that Obama himself would have thought so. That was before he was an incumbent President with only one way to escape his record: a cynical, small-minded campaign against a backdrop of persistent unemployment, $1 trillion deficits and a looming entitlement crisis. It might be shrewd; it is definitely unworthy.

Lowry is the editor of National Review