Obama speech takes aim at GOP mainstream, Romney included

WASHINGTON — President Obama shifted sharply toward his reelection campaign Tuesday, criticizing Republicans for trying to “impose a radical vision on our country” that would reward the very rich while slashing programs that benefit the middle class.

For months, Obama and his top advisors have been laying the groundwork for a campaign that would seek to tie the eventual GOP nominee to congressional Republicans, who have become deeply unpopular with a majority of voters, according to repeated polls. Speaking to a group of news editors and reporters in Washington, Obama aggressively pursued that line of attack, describing current Republicans as extremists out of step even with GOP presidents.

At the same time, he offered a methodical defense of a strong government hand in national affairs and his own philosophy of governing, one that favored putting money into programs that he said would provide greater opportunities for the middle class. The election would offer an “unambiguously clear” choice, he said.

Obama mentioned GOP front-runner Mitt Romney by name, a rarity, and derided the former Massachusetts governor’s support for the budget plan recently approved by House Republicans. He called the budget a “Trojan horse” that, in the guise of cutting the federal deficit, would provide large new tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and deep cuts in popular programs.

“It is thinly veiled social Darwinism,” Obama said. “It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

The House budget is so far from the political mainstream that it “makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal,” he said, referring to a 1994 campaign document that Republicans wielded on their way to winning control of Congress.

With the speech, Obama sought to get a jump on Romney just as the Republican appeared on the cusp of sealing his hold on his party’s nomination. It illustrated the advantage Obama has derived from the long-running GOP contest, in which Romney has embraced his party’s conservative activists and their causes.

Romney has campaigned often in Wisconsin with that state’s rising Republican star, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, author of his party’s budget plan. In so doing, Romney has tied himself to the budget despite its controversial elements, providing a large target for Obama.

“This isn’t a budget supported by some small rump group in the Republican Party,” the president said. “This is now the party’s governing platform. This is what they’re running on.”

The budget plan would cut taxes for the wealthy, refashion Medicare into a voucher-style program and cut deeply into federal spending. It would provide tax cuts of an “average of at least $150,000 for every millionaire in this country — $150,000,” Obama said. House Republicans dispute that figure, saying their plan calls for unspecified changes to the tax code that make such a number impossible to determine.

When the budget passed the House last week, largely along party lines, Romney called it “marvelous.” Obama jabbed at Romney’s choice of adjectives, indirectly raising another Democratic campaign theme — that Romney is out of touch with ordinary Americans.

“Marvelous” is a word that “you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget,” he joked. “It’s a word you don’t often hear generally.”

Even before Obama spoke, Ryan sought to rebut his accusations, saying that the president would “try to characterize those people who do not agree with where he’s taking America as if we’re some kind of villain in a cartoon.” Obama, he said, was trying to divide the country to distract from his plans to take it down the wrong path.

“The country can be saved,” Ryan said. “It is not too late to get America back on the right track.”

Romney, who is scheduled to speak to the same journalists’ group Wednesday, called the president’s remarks “inaccurate” and said Obama had failed to protect those with the least economic security.

“This is a president whose policies have made it harder for our economy to recover, and that means more Americans are suffering, particularly those at the ‘bleeding edge,’ if you will,” Romney told conservative radio host Sean Hannity. “This presidency has failed.”

Democrats in Congress have long argued that Republicans have left the mainstream. The president offered his most expansive development of that theme and signaled the extent to which the argument would ground his case for reelection.

His remarks included several phrases and the more aggressive tone he has adopted in recent campaign speeches. The speech followed the populist appeal he delivered in Kansas in December, where he described a “make-or-break moment for the middle class,” and his State of the Union address in January, in which he offered proposals to create an “economy built to last.”

Although Obama’s rhetoric was often heated, the setting was sedate. Rather than applauding supporters, the White House picked an audience of journalists, who sat silently through the address. That choice suggested that White House officials were reluctant to have the president wade too deeply into the campaign waters this early. Explicit campaigning has thus far been left to surrogates, most prominently Vice President Joe Biden.

In his criticism of the GOP, Obama did not name the tea party, making no distinction between the new brand of small-government Republicans and the party establishment the activists often rail against.

Instead, the president sought to portray the GOP as turning its back on its own heroes. Obama listed Republican presidents and their contributions to infrastructure and social programs. Abraham Lincoln provided government aid to build the transcontinental railroad, he said. Dwight Eisenhower invested in scientific research. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. George W. Bush added prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

Even Ronald Reagan, “who, as I recall, is not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control, that for him to make a deal he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases,” Obama said. “He could not get through a Republican primary today.

“The positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions,” he said. “What’s changed is the center of the Republican Party.”

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan in Waukesha, Wis., contributed to this report.