WASHINGTON — Eager to start campaigning for re-election next year, President Barack Obama isn’t waiting for the Republican Party to nominate a rival. He's running against Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Obama professes to like Ryan, the 41-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee. But in increasingly personal and pointed terms, Obama is attacking Ryan as the face of a Republican Party that he says would use the government's debt crisis to turn America in a radical new direction.
He's doing it for two key reasons. Obama wants to shift the public focus away from own contribution to the nation's skyrocketing debt — which hurt Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections — and onto the Republican Party's proposed solutions. And he wants to frame the election as a choice between two very different visions of America: The Republican one he calls a dark place for the poor and middle class, and the other his own view of a friendly, more utopian place.
Obama, his top advisers and fellow Democrats believe that Ryan handed them a gift when he proposed a budget plan that would cut taxes by $2 trillion over 10 years and also cut federal spending by $6.2 trillion, cuts which include possibly wrenching changes in the popular Medicare program.
Some Republicans think, however, that Obama already is overplaying his hand. His attacks on Ryan may make it harder for him to strike a bargain with congressional Republicans, and could alienate voters focused on the enormous debt problem. And he also could turn off independents who chafe at partisan warfare.
Either way, it’s Obama versus Ryan for the foreseeable future.
"This is the beginning of a year-and-a-half argument about how to save the country's economy," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Obama all but dared the Republicans to go first, signaling that he thought it foolhardy for him to make the first move in proposing specifics on big, long-term budget changes.
"This is not a matter of you go first or I go first," he said when he rolled a budget proposal in February that did not propose any substantial debt-reduction.
"If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there; it’s because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way."
Obama let Ryan go first. The Wisconsin congressman unveiled his budget blueprint in early April.
The White House said it didn't like it, and Democrats quietly started keeping track of which potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates endorsed the plan.
"I applaud Rep. Paul Ryan," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely candidate. "Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page."
Romney’s endorsement was noted in the White House, and stored away for later use.
Two months after Obama said there was no need to have an "Obama plan out there," the president announced that he'd give a major speech outlining his long-term budget ideas. Aides said he'd always planned it, that he wasn’t just responding to Ryan.
With Ryan sitting in the audience as an invited guest at George Washington University near the White House, Obama didn't just propose his own plan — he launched his first broadside at Ryan's plan.
"This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America," Obama said. "Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, ‘there’s nothing serious or courageous about this plan.’
"There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know."
Ryan said he was stunned.
"When the president reached out to ask us to attend his speech, we were expecting an olive branch," he said afterwards. "Instead, his speech was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate, and hopelessly inadequate to address our fiscal crisis. What we heard today was not fiscal leadership from our commander-in-chief; we heard a political broadside from our campaigner-in-chief."
The next day, Obama ripped Ryan while speaking to campaign contributors in Chicago, in what he thought was an off-the-record session.
"When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, you know, he’s just being America’s accountant ,” Obama said in remarks taped through an open microphone by CBS reporter Mark Knoller, "this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill — but wasn’t paid for. So it’s not on the level. And we’ve got to keep on, you know, keep on shining a light on that.”
Then last week in California, Obama reacted almost with anger when asked to respond to pundits who credit Ryan with being bold and courageous in making the first detailed proposal to cut deficits.
"The Republican budget that was put forward I would say is fairly radical. I wouldn’t call it particularly courageous," Obama said. "I do think Mr. Ryan is sincere. I think he’s a patriot. I think he wants to solve a real problem, which is our long-term deficit. But I think that what he and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way."
Polls suggest that Obama may have the upper hand. A McClatchy-Marist poll last week, for example, found that voters by 2-1 support raising taxes on the wealthy, and by 4-1 they also don’t want to cut Medicare.
Obama wants to raise income and other taxes on incomes above $200,000. He also wants to raise Social Security taxes on income above 106,800.
Ryan proposes to slash top income tax rates on high incomes from 35 percent to 25 percent, but also would eliminate some unspecified deductions and loopholes.
Republicans concede that it was politically risky for Ryan to propose a detailed plan to curb deficits. But they think voters will reward him for stepping up to the problem, and that Obama will pay a price for appearing more partisan than serious.
"Of course there's risk. But it is a sincere effort to address the problem," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Ryan’s effort.
"The president's attacks are not the actions of someone who's trying to find a solution, they're the actions of someone who's trying to find a political edge. This is the sort of thing that independents hate — partisan attacks rather than solving problems."
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