CHICAGO – Mitt Romney sought to sharpen his contrast with President Obama on the nation’s most pressing economic issues in a Tuesday afternoon speech on the president’s home turf.
Romney assailed what he called the administration’s “assault on economic freedom” in a speech at the University of Chicago, where Obama was a law professor for 12 years. The school is also reputed as the traditional home to the school of economics that compose the intellectual foundations of modern free-market conservatism.
Romney castigated the president for applying the "heavy hand of government" too broadly, particularly on taxes and regulations, and told his audience of some 150 students and faculty that the time had come to change the economic course of the country.
"Over the last several decades, and particularly over the last three years, Washington has consistently encroached upon our freedom. The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid – why it couldn’t meet their expectations, let alone ours," Romney said. "If we don’t change course now, the assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of American families for decades to come."
The former Massachusetts governor used the high-profile speech, covered by a large contingent of Chicago and national media, to decry the state of the nation under the Obama administration, but did not roll out any new policy prescriptions of his own.
"We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Today, we can’t even build a pipeline," Romney said. "We once led the world in manufacturing, exports, and infrastructure investment. Today, we lead the world in lawsuits"
Romney's speech, in which he promised that "our economic freedom will be on the ballot," comes amidst two straight days of campaigning almost solely on kitchen-table economic issues like gas prices and tax relief. While Romney made no mention of his opponents as "economic lightweights" directly in this speech, as he has at each other stop in Illinois, his campaign illuminated the contrast on his behalf, sending out a press release just as Romney's speech ended, quoting his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum saying this morning that "the issue in this race is not the economy."
As Romney was delivering his speech, roughly 100 miles away in Dixon, Illinois, Santorum was talking about freedom, too, attacking Romney for the health care law he passed in Massachusetts.
"Let’s just be brutally honest about it. There’s one candidate in this race who could never make this race about freedom because he simply abandoned freedom when he was governor of Massachusetts and he abandoned it when he promoted Obamacare in 2009,” Santorum said.
(Santorum was making reference to a 2009 op-ed by Romney in USA Today in which he argues for modeling national health reform on the plan he enacted as governor of Massachusetts.)
Near the end of his remarks, Romney remarked on the pet issue of one former candidate, long removed from the nominating contest, when he joked about the end of incandescent light bulb sales in the US, a regulatory battle long fought, and ultimately lost, by Rep. Michelle Bachmann.
"A regulator would have shut down the Wright Brothers for their “dust pollution," Romney joked. “And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that."
NBC's Andrew Rafferty contributed reporting.