Can Obama Convince America Romney Is a Radical Right-Winger?

Launching his general-election message in a Washington speech, the president says his probable rival isn't the moderate in the race.

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Reuters

The message of President Obama's speech in Washington on Tuesday could be summed up thus: I am the moderate Republican in this presidential race.

He began with a paean to regulatory reform, tax cuts, and free enterprise. "I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history," he said. He also listed all the good things (that is, government expansions) accomplished by Republican presidents -- Lincoln and the Transcontinental Railroad, Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System, Nixon and the EPA, Reagan working to "save" Social Security, even George W. Bush's addition of prescription-drug benefits to Medicare.

But the Republicans now running the House of Representatives -- and running for president -- aren't like their predecessors, Obama warned in his address to the Associated Press.* "Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down," he said. "They have proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal."

And then Obama went where he hadn't before: He called his likely opponent out by name.

"This is now the party's governing platform," he said. "This is what they're running on. One of my potential opponents, Governor Romney, has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency."

Obama also couldn't resist a little dig at Romney's penchant for odd locutions when he noted that Romney had called the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin "marvelous." "That's a word you don't often hear to describe a budget," he said, breaking into a wide grin. "It's a word you don't often hear generally." The president got quite a kick out of this, though "marvelous" is hardly exotic, as adjectives go. (Obama, it turns out, has used it himself.)

As the general election gets under way, Obama's main line on his prospective rival appears to be that time-honored political trope, My Opponent Is a Dangerous Radical (with a dash of My Opponent Is a Strange Weirdo thrown in). It's a favorite line of Romney and the Republicans as well -- that Obama is a socialist taking the country off a cliff -- so turnabout is fair play.

But it's remarkable how explicitly Obama is seeking to play on Republicans' turf, embracing the core tenets of GOP philosophy and arguing merely that they need to be tempered or compromised -- not that they're wrong. It is a sign, perhaps, of the extent to which Republicans have won the debate over whether things like deficit reduction are important goals, or at least the extent to which Obama believes they have.

Much of Obama's speech was devoted to a savage, irritated excoriation of the House Republicans' proposed budget -- a list of all the government programs that would have to be scaled back or eliminated, from college aid to medical research to national parks. "Over time," he warned, "our weather forecasts would become less accurate because we wouldn't be able to afford to launch new satellites. And that means governors and mayors would have to wait longer to order evacuations in the event of a hurricane."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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