President Obama’s view of America’s future key to deciding 2012 election

Conventional wisdom today is that, with the economy recovering, the president’s chances of reelection are improving. It follows that the Republican candidates have so wrapped themselves around the axle of social issues that they are marginalizing the chances of success for all Republicans, not just the GOP nominee, this fall.

This is all logical, but it is not where the election is going.

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President Obama’s reelection will not rise or fall based primarily on the economy. Most Americans have jobs, especially those who vote. They will vote on their view of the future, and the economy is only one of the factors that go into how that view evolves. It is more a symptom than the cause of the nation’s angst.

The president’s problem is that he has defined himself. When he ran four years ago, he had no definition. People could and did assign to him whatever cause or belief they most desired in their president, and it stuck because with the theme of “hope and change,” everything was in play. This is not the situation today.

The president has given himself a very specific persona and equally clear political philosophy. The election will be about whether that persona and political philosophy are seen by the majority of American voters as embodying their hope for America’s and their children’s future. It will be a difficult sell no matter what the economy is doing.

The president’s persona is one that relies heavily on blaming someone else or some other event for the failures that have occurred during his first term. Accepting responsibility does not seem high on the list of character traits that one associates with this president. He is always casting himself as a victim.

The president’s political philosophy is now seen for what it probably always was. In his last campaign it was never fully exposed due to his newness to the national political scene.

It is a philosophy that America is in large part an unjust society and that the only way to correct this injustice is to dramatically expand the role of the federal government and those who govern as the dispensers of social justice. It is very much a community-organizer view of the role of government in the everyday life of the nation.

Lost in these activist goals is the fact that you simply cannot grow the government as much as the president and his people want and not significantly reduce the chances that our children, who have to pay the cost of all this expansion, can inherit a prosperous nation.

There is no question that, this time around, the president has given himself definition. This is very different from the 2008 election. It will be a serious test to see if a majority of American voters buy into this new, very specific direction for our nation.

There is no question that Rick Santorum’s single-minded obsession with forcing every controversial social issue to the front of the parade of issues being discussed in the Republican presidential primary process drives the Republican Party away, not toward, the independent voters who will determine the next president.

Will this carry through to the November elections and essentially make the Republican nominee a dead-on-arrival candidate?

Not if Mitt Romney is the nominee. Only the most ardent advocates and their opponents on these social issues will take those into the voting booth as their reason for voting.

So many other issues that truly affect day-to-day life and the future of our children and our nation will be in play by then that, unless the Republican nominee makes social issues his cause célèbre, they will fade from significant influence in the final vote.

Conventional wisdom is often the overstated perception of the present. That is why it is so often wrong. This election will not turn on the issues of contraception or gay marriage or even the economy. It will turn on the issue of where the country is going and what legacy we are leaving our children. Republicans, thanks to Obama’s defining of himself, do have the high ground on these deciding issues.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.