Launching his general-election message in a Washington speech, the president says his probable rival isn't the moderate in the race.
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."
Obama likened his budget plans to the work of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, noting that the commission actually took a more liberal tack -- more tax hikes and defense cuts -- than Obama himself proposed.
The Ryan plan, Obama charged, is "a Trojan Horse" for proponents of an unworkable trickle-down economic theory. "Disguised as deficit-reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country," he said. "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." As if that weren't dire enough, he added, "it is a prescription for decline."
The question is whether Obama will be able to convince voters that Romney is, in fact, a far-right ideologue. Romney has indeed endorsed the Ryan budget, if a bit gingerly, and was campaigning with Ryan in Wisconsin even as Obama spoke. Yet much of Romney's own record and rhetoric suggests that, like Obama, his inclinations are more centrist than not; and while there are questions he ought to answer about the extent and consequences of his support for Ryan's proposals, he hasn't exactly said the government ought to rescind its aid for grandmothers and disabled children.
Certainly Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and millions of dissenting conservative primary voters would find the charge that Romney is an archconservative hilarious. This might, in fact, be an upside for Romney of the otherwise damaging extended Republican primary: In continuing to juxtapose him against his more conservative rivals, it may have helped position him in the center.
The first question for Obama from the audience was what message he'd give to "Americans who just want both sides to stop fighting." Here, he took the opportunity to do a little media-bashing: For reporters, he said, "there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they're equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. An equivalence is presented, which reinforces people's cynicism about Washington generally. This is not one of those situations where there is an equivalence."
The question, as the general election proceeds, will be whether Obama can make Romney out to be the equivalent of Ryan and his ideological ilk -- or whether Romney can somehow slip the noose and make himself the moderate Republican in the race instead.
* This post originally stated that Obama addressed the Newspaper Association of America. We regret the error.