In the fieriest speech of his presidency Tuesday, Barack Obama lit into the Republican Party’s vision for the country’s future as outlined in the House GOP budget, and endorsed by his most likely election rival Mitt Romney.
Obama decried key planks of the Republican agenda — particularly calls for large tax cuts for wealthy Americans, and a plan to phase out traditional Medicare — which he took care to describe accurately, though in hostile terms.
And in response to questions from the audience, Obama urged the press not to confuse rancor over the parties’ competing visions for the country as typical partisan bitterness for which Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable.
Chiding Republicans for not learning anything from the failure of trickle-down policies that defined the last decades, Obama attacked the GOP budget head-on. “They have proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract for America look like the New Deal,” he said. “In fact, that renowned liberal, Newt Gingrich, first called the original version of the budget radical. He said it would contribute to right-wing social engineering. … This is now the party’s governing platform. This is what they are running on. One of my potential opponents, Gov. Romney, has said he hopes a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on Day One of his presidency.”
The White House forecast Obama’s remarks early Tuesday and top Republicans were prepped to respond as soon as his speech, hosted by the Associated Press, wrapped.
“History will not be kind to a president who, when it came time to confront our generation’s defining challenge, chose to duck and run,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. “The president refuses to take responsibility for the economy and refuses to offer a credible plan to address the most predictable economic crisis in our history. Instead, he has chosen tired and cynical political attacks as he focuses on his own re-election.”
But Obama was careful to distinguish the GOP’s current budget from the one it passed last year, which included a more radical Medicare overhaul. He described the current iteration of the plan as a threat to the popular health care program for seniors, but explained the details with precision.
He contrasted the GOP plan, which uses deep cuts to the safety net to finance a deep tax cut for the wealthy, with his own budget and with the reforms proposed by the co-chairs of his deficit commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. That plan attempts to draw down budget deficits with a mix of cuts and higher tax revenues.
“There’s oftentimes the impulse to suggest that, if the two parties are disagreeing, they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Obama cautioned the room full of reporters. “And an equivalence is presented, which reinforces people’s cynicism about Washington in general. This is not one of those situations where there is an equivalence.”
The president noted that a similar theme has played out on other key issues, including cap-and-trade and Obama’s own health care law, both of which were first proposed as conservative alternatives to liberal approaches to environmental and health care reforms.
“Suddenly, this is some socialist overreach,” Obama joked.
“It is important to remember that the positions I’m taking on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, it would have been considered squarely centrist positions,” Obama said. “What has changed is the center of the Republican Party.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.