Finally blessed with a specific target and a message the White House thinks will resonate with independents, President Obama went on the attack Tuesday with great relish. In a fiery speech to the nation’s newspaper editors and publishers, the president ripped into the Republican budget adopted by the House five days ago and left no doubt that he intends to force likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney to explain his support for all its provisions.
To make that work for him, the president must define the budget much differently than its sponsor, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., does. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, casts it as a package of spending cuts and tough medicine needed to cure the ills brought on by deficit spending. Unchallenged, that definition is a winner for Republicans, particularly with political independents who see Obama as a big spender. To win them over --and he needs them if he is to win reelection -- Obama must persuade them that the Ryan budget is both a radical document and a fundamental reordering of the citizenry’s compact with their government.
So it was no mistake that the audience chosen to hear a lengthy speech on the budget was one of editors, publishers, and opinion-makers. And they heard a president in full-throated campaign form. The Ryan budget, he declared, “is a Trojan horse.” Warming up, he added: “Disguised as deficit-reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly-veiled social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it, a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top but grows outward from the heart of the middle class.”
It is, he contended, “a prescription for decline” that would gut programs important to millions of Americans. “I don't think people fully appreciate the nature of this budget,” he warned. And he wanted to make sure listeners understood that “this isn't a budget supported by some small rump group in the Republican Party. This is now the party's governing platform.” In case anyone missed his point, he added, “This is what they're running on.”
Again with an eye on those crucial independents, the president cast himself as the only true moderate in the race, someone acutely aware of the threat of the deficit but pledged to protect the government safety net.
Senior White House officials say this was not a preview of the Obama stump speech for the campaign. But it was decidedly a step in the evolution of that basic pitch. The reelection campaign has been carefully building a narrative, beginning with Obama's populist-tinged speech in Osawatomie, Kan., on Dec. 6, and continuing with the State of the Union Address on Jan. 24 and his budget presentation on Feb. 13. Tuesday's speech to the news executives took elements of the first three, sharpened the attack, mentioned Romney for the first time, and made the target much more focused. What started as a vision in Kansas is now a political assault.
Republicans howled in protest at this latest barrage. But even in their protests they confirmed one of the president’s main points -- that they are, indeed, running on the Ryan budget. In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it “a responsible budget that would help put Americans back to work” and “makes the tough choices the president refuses to make to address the staggering deficits and debt that are slowing our economic recovery, costing jobs, and threatening to destroy the American dream.” He said that Republicans “are committed to the budget.”
And, by all accounts, Romney’s embrace of Ryan remains complete. He has described the budget as “an excellent piece of work and very much needed.” Of course, the president preferred to quote another comment by his likely general election foe. In his most personal jab yet at Romney, Obama told the editors, “he even called it ‘marvelous,’ which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget.” After pausing for laughter, he added with a chuckle, “It's a word you don't often hear generally.”
With that, the campaign moves into a new phase with a clearer target and no more illusions that the White House is waiting for a better time to engage Romney directly.