President Obama embraced a general election fight versus Mitt Romney on the core issue of the economy, casting the fall campaign as a chance to break a "stalemate" between warring political factions in Washington.
In a highly-anticipated speech in the swing state of Ohio, the president sought to re-frame the 2012 campaign after weathering a series of setbacks mostly connected to voters' concern that the economic recovery has begun to sputter.
Speaking in Cleveland, Ohio, President Obama says "this election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth; how to pay down our long-term debt; and most of all, how to generate good, middle-class jobs."
"There is one place where I stand in complete agreement with my opponent: this election is about our economic future," Obama said at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.
Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks on the economy during a campaign event at the Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 14.
The speech was intended to offer a sharp contrast versus Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who delivered a stinging rebuke of the president’s economic stewardship in a speech moments earlier in Cincinnati. The Obama campaign said it was the first in a series of actions by Obama meant to frame the general election.
“What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate,” Obama said. “At stake is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties, but between two paths for our country.”
For Obama, the GOP path – which, he said, Romney would advance along with unpopular congressional Republicans, hand-in-hand – represented a retread of the policies during the Bush administration. A Romney administration, the president warned, would award expensive tax cuts mostly to the wealthy and let corporations run amok of regulations, all while gutting support for education and infrastructure.
The speech was firmly ensconced in a kind of “Blame Bush” strategy that Republicans frequently decry as a political red herring, and Romney tried to keep the focus on the past three years.
“He’s going to be saying today that he wants four more years. He may have forgotten he talked about a one term proposition if he couldn’t get the economy turned around in three years. But we’re going to hold him to his word,” Romney said in Cincinnati, referring to an interview given by Obama in which he said he’d be voted out if his administration failed to improve the economy.
“I know that he will have all sorts of excuses and he’ll have all sorts of ideas he’ll describe about how he’ll make things better,” Romney said. “And so if people want to know how his economic policies have worked and how they perform, why they can talk to their neighbor and ask if things are better.”
The president’s speech was billed as a major one by both the White House and Obama’s re-election team. It follows a bruising couple of weeks politically for Obama, coming after May’s lackluster jobs report, Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election and the president’s gaffe last Friday, in which he suggested the private sector was doing “fine.”
(Obama made light of those comments at the top of his speech: "Over the next five months, this election will take many twists and many turns, polls will go up and polls will go down, there will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about. You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process.")
Obama’s message on Thursday ironically mirrored much of the rhetoric he used at his last speech at Cuyahoga Community College in September of 2010. Then, when Republicans were on the cusp of a swarming victory in that year’s midterm elections, Obama also warned in that speech about the perils of electing Republicans who would return to Bush policies.
“That’s the choice, Ohio. Do we return to the same failed policies that ran our economy into a ditch, or do we keep moving forward with policies that are slowly pulling us out? “ Obama asked in the 2010 speech. “Do we settle for a slow decline, or do we reach for an America with a growing economy and a thriving middle class? That’s the America that I see. We may not be there yet, but we know where this country needs to go.”
Obama paired his criticism of Romney with what he said was an alternative vision that made up the choice in front of voters this autumn.
"The debate in this election is not about whether we need to grow faster, or whether we need to create more jobs, or whether we need to pay down our debt," Obama said. "The debate in this election is about how we grow faster, and how we create more jobs, and how we pay down our debt. That's the question facing the American voter."
The crowd of about 1,500 cheered throughout most of the speech, which extended toward almost an hour in length. The president spent a considerable amount of time delving into his hopes for what investments in energy, technology, infrastructure and other priorities could do for rebuilding the middle class.
The dueling speeches, though, offered a glimpse of the general election battle that’s set to dominate the next five months. Romney will return to the Buckeye State as soon as Sunday, during a stop on a bus tour that will take him through six swing states.