WASHINGTON — Trying to persuade voters that he has ideas to strengthen the weak economy — and therefore that they should vote for Democrats in November — President Barack Obama Wednesday proposed major tax incentives for business and accused Republicans of stonewalling in a bid to "ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day."
The president's 46-minute speech was more about the politics of the economy than fixing it.
Speaking at a community college in Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Obama barely touched on the specifics of the $300 billion in tax incentives that he proposed: allowing businesses to write off 100 percent of their investments in 2011, and expanding and making permanent a research-and-development tax credit. Congress is unlikely to act on his latest tax proposals before the elections.
However, Obama combined a populist tax stand against the rich with a pitch for business-friendly tax breaks to put Republicans in Congress on the spot. That's exactly what many Democratic lawmakers have been pressing him to do — to take the gloves off and frame the election as a choice between Democrats with a vision and Republicans who simply oppose everything Obama tries to do and who would roll back the clock to policies from the George W. Bush era.
He hung today's economic troubles squarely on "the flawed policies and economic weaknesses of the previous decade." He said he'd hoped that the resulting crisis would lead Republicans to work with Democrats on solutions, but "some Republican leaders figured it was smart politics to sit on the sidelines and let Democrats solve the mess . . . "
He said that Democrats' policies have restored a growing economy, but that doing necessary things such as "temporarily supporting the banks and the auto industry fed the perception that Washington is still ignoring the middle class in favor of special interests. And so people are frustrated and angry and anxious about the future. I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day."
In setting his remarks near Cleveland, an economically troubled city in a big swing state, Obama also took on House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner is poised to become speaker of the House of Representatives if Democrats lose control of it in November. Last month, Boehner delivered his own economic manifesto in Cleveland, where he urged Obama to dump his top economic aides.
Obama said Boehner had proposed "no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy we already tried in the last decade — the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place."
Boehner, anticipating the criticism, on Wednesday unveiled a new two-step plan for paring government deficits: Cutting all non-security related government spending back to fiscal 2008 levels and imposing a two-year freeze on all current tax rates.
As long as Democrats are in charge of Congress, it isn't likely to pass. However, if Republicans win control, Boehner made it clear that those items will be GOP priorities.
Obama said that Republicans were holding up votes on proposals such as a jobs bill for small business, solely to put him in a bad spot: "If I fail, they win."
He said that Republicans were tying up a middle-class tax cut extension even though they support it, because they want to force Democrats to also extend tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, which would cost the Treasury almost $700 billion over 10 years. Obama said that's ironic given "all the Republicans' talk about wanting to shrink the deficit."
Obama said he has "a different vision for the future." He favors long-term investments in education and clean energy, research and development, and infrastructure. Democrats believe, he said, "in a vibrant free market — but one that works for everybody."
Nostalgically, Obama spoke of a rally he'd held in Cleveland shortly before his 2008 election as "a hopeful time." Today, he acknowledged, "Folks are worried about the future" and "I know there's still a lot of hurt out here."
However, he insisted, "It's still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election is about. That's the choice you'll face in November."
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY