04/13/2012 10:12 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

Obama vs. Romney: Class Warfare

With the departure of Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney is sure to win the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. His campaign has turned its focus to President Obama. The first week of April, both Obama and Romney spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Their speeches previewed what we're likely to hear from their two candidates over the next seven months: very different perspectives on economic fairness.

Obama's central theme was inequality: "Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well while a growing number struggle to get by or are we better off when everyone gets a fair shot?" Declaring, "this is a make or break moment for the middle class." The president observed that the Democratic and Republican positions are extraordinarily different. He defends the 99 percent, while Romney favors the 1 percent.

In contrast, Romney's central theme was President Obama. "He did not cause the economic crisis but he made it worse." "President Obama's answer to the our economic crisis was more spending, more debt, and larger government."

According to a recent Pew Research Poll 61 percent of American's believe the U.S. economic system "unfairly favors the wealthy." Romney won't acknowledge this. When questioned on the Today Show about growing concern regarding economic inequality, Romney responded: "I think [this concern is] about envy. I think it's about class warfare." In his ASNE speech, the closest Romney came to responding to Obama's comments about inequality was to accuse the president of "setting up straw men to distract from his record."

Obama observed:

"What drags down our entire economy is when there's an ever-widening chasm between the ultra rich and everybody else. In this country broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class."

Romney sees it differently:

"We're struggling because our government is too big. As President... I will cut marginal tax rates across the board for individuals and corporations, and limit deductions and exclusions. I will repeal burdensome regulations, and prevent the bureaucracy from writing new ones... Instead of growing the federal government, I will shrink it."

Romney's solution to America's economic malaise is a reprise of the discredited maxims of Reaganomics: government is the problem; helping the rich get richer will inevitably help everyone else; and markets are inherently self-correcting and therefore there's no need for government regulation -- whether the problem is bank fraud or polluted water.

Obama anticipated Romney's perspective:

"For much of the last century, we have been having the same argument with folks who keep peddling some version of trickle-down economics. They keep telling us that if we convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, our economy will grow stronger. They keep telling us that if we just strip away more regulations, and let businesses pollute more and treat workers and consumers with impunity, that somehow we'd all be better off. We're told that when the wealthy become even wealthier and corporations are allowed to maximize their profits by whatever means necessary, it's good for America and that their success will automatically translate into more jobs and prosperity for everybody else. That's the theory... the problem for advocates of this theory is that we've tried their approach. The income of the top 1 percent has grown by more than 275 percent over the last few decades to an average of $1.3 million a year. But prosperity sure didn't trickle down. Instead, during the last decade, we had the slowest job growth in half a century. And the typical American family actually saw their incomes fall by about 6 percent, even as the economy was growing."

The 2012 Presidential election will center on economic fairness. Obama is a Democrat defending the rights of the 99 percent. Romney is a plutocrat defending the rights of the 1 percent. Obama wants to use government as an instrument to ensure a fairer economy, to revitalize American democracy. Romney wants to eviscerate government. He wants a reprise of Reaganomics, a return to the economic philosophy that produced 2008's economic meltdown and the current recession.

Understanding Romney's perspective helps crack his campaign code. When Romney says Obama made the economic crisis worse, he means Obama did not follow Republican advice and do nothing; Obama did not stand by and let the economy crater. When Romney says Obama has no economic plan, he means Obama does not have a plan that Republicans agree with, a plan that relies upon the magic of Reaganomics.

In his ASNE speech, President Obama said, "I can't remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear." That's correct. Obama's challenge is to make sure that American voters understand this. In the 2012 presidential election the central issue must be economic fairness.