President Barack Obama long has had Paul Ryan in his sights.
Obama has spent months critiquing the fiscal plan proposed by the Wisconsin congressman who Republican Mitt Romney yesterday named as his presidential running mate as “radical” and a “prescription for decline.”
The Ryan plan “makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal,” Obama said in an April 3 speech in Washington, referring to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican program in Congress the 1990s.
“Disguised as a deficit-reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country,” Obama said of Ryan’s proposal. “It’s nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
The rhetorical heat had been building for more than two years, and Ryan hasn’t been shy about returning fire.
One of the early confrontations between the two men occurred Feb. 25, 2010, at a White House summit on the health-care legislation. Ryan, sitting across from Obama, said the president’s plan was full of “gimmicks and smoke and mirrors” and “does not control costs” or reduce deficits.
Ryan went on to deliver a point-by-point dissection of the budgetary impact of the health-care overhaul, which Obama signed into law about a month later, and its effect on Medicare and Social Security. He concluded by saying the public didn’t want it.
“We all talk to our constituents,” Ryan said. “And if you think they want a government takeover of health care, I would respectfully submit you’re not listening to them.”
While Obama glared, he kept his response confined to one aspect of Ryan’s critique and didn’t directly engage him. That cool posture has changed as Ryan’s profile rose during the budget debate that has consumed much of the give-and-take between the White House and congressional Republicans.
In April 2011, a week after Ryan, as House Budget Committee chairman, released his fiscal plan and said Obama’s budget would “accelerate this country’s descent into a debt crisis,” the president delivered a speech at George Washington University in Washington.
With Ryan sitting in the crowd, Obama lit into the congressman’s proposal to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over a decade and revamp Social Security and Medicare.
While lauding those as “worthy” goals, Obama said the Republican’s vision “is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”
“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,” Obama said, foreshadowing what has become the central message of his re-election campaign.
He characterized Ryan’s plan for Medicare, the government insurance program for those 65 and older as, “tough luck; you’re on your own.”
Ryan wants to replace the current system with one giving seniors a fixed amount of money to buy private coverage. The theory is that competition among health insurers for their business will bring down spiraling costs. After first proposing a phase-out of traditional Medicare, he has since said he would offer seniors a choice between the two plans.
In his own news conference afterward, Ryan called Obama’s speech “a political broadside from our ‘campaigner in chief.’”
Pressing His Case
Obama, 51, kept up the argument a week later at a town-hall event at the headquarters of Facebook Inc. in Palo Alto, California. He called Ryan’s budget “radical” and “short-sighted.”
“Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless and don’t have lobbyists or don’t have clout,” Obama said.
Ryan, 42, has ratcheted up his rhetoric against the president, as well.
Last October, he accused Obama of “sowing social unrest and class resentment” and “pitting one group against another” in promoting a $447 billion jobs agenda, which would be financed with a new surtax on millionaires.
“Instead of appealing to the hope and optimism that were the hallmarks of his first campaign, he has launched his second campaign by preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment,” Ryan said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
He accused Obama of misrepresenting the differences between the parties, quoting the president’s remarks a week earlier that Republicans support “dirtier air, dirtier water, fewer people on health care.”
“He’s going from town to town, impugning the motives of Republicans, setting up straw men and scapegoats and engaging in intellectually lazy arguments as he tries to build support for punitive tax hikes on job creators,” Ryan said.
Obama retorted in his April 3 speech in Washington with a line he’s also used at campaign events.
The Ryan plan reduces federal deficits by “gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last,” Obama said. “That is not class warfare. That is not class envy. That is math.”
He also directly linked Romney to Ryan, jabbing at the speaking style of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee at the same time.
“He even called it ‘marvelous,’ which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget,” Obama said of Romney’s endorsement of the Ryan budget plan. ‘It’s a word you don’t often hear generally.”
The extended, long-distance debate between the congressman and the president raises a key question for Romney, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia. “The interesting question is, does this make the debate about the future as envisioned by Ryan instead of the future envisioned by Romney?”