For more than a year, President Obama has been trying to run against Paul Ryan and House Republicans.
And now -- with Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate -- he is.
It started in April of last year when the president invited the Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Committee chairman to hear his speech on fiscal policy at George Washington University here in Washington.
Asking Ryan to be there might have seemed like a gesture of good will toward Ryan, who had just weeks earlier unveiled his controversial budget.
Instead, sitting in the front row, Ryan listened as his plan -- and by extension Ryan himself -- was eviscerated by the president of the United States.
As Obama picked it apart, Ryan grew more annoyed, shaking his head at times and scribbling notes. As soon as the speech was over, Ryan darted out of the room.
For all of the policy discussion that will happen over the next several weeks, and deep dives into Ryan’s budget, the episode highlights that politics can be awfully personal. It also began the president’s year-long effort to draw a very distinct line between his vision for the country and that of congressional Republicans, led by Ryan and his budget after the 2010 GOP midterm sweep of the House. With Congress’ abysmal ratings, it was an easy foil.
Perhaps nothing provides clearer evidence for how Obama will go after the Romney-Ryan ticket than three speeches Obama has given in the past year -- that one in April 2011, another months later in Kansas, and one earlier this year before newspaper editors.
“I was excited when we got invited to attend his speech today,” Ryan said, reacting to the April 2011 speech at the time. “I thought the president’s invitation … was an olive branch.”
It was not.
“We have a number of members of Congress here today. I'm grateful for all of you taking the time to attend,” Obama said benignly near the beginning of his speech. That was just minutes before he would launch his broadside on Ryan’s plan, which the president dismissed as not “serious” and “deeply pessimistic.”
Romney told NBC’s Chuck Todd this week he wanted a vice president with a “vision for the country.” Obama swatted at that vision during the George Washington University speech.
“It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them,” Obama said. “If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. … It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors.”
He went on, slamming the plan on health care, education, clean energy and tax breaks for the wealthy.
“[W]orst of all,” Obama declared, “this is a vision that says even though Americans can’t afford to invest in education at current levels, or clean energy, even though we can’t afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about that. …
“This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said there’s nothing ‘serious’ or ‘courageous’ about this plan.”
You can bet Ryan will remember those words.
‘Not on the level’
Obama may not have mentioned Ryan by name in the speech, but he did a couple of days later when he thought no one was listening.
"When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, you know, he's just being America's accountant, trying to be responsible … this is the same guy who voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for. So it's not on the level,” Obama said at a closed-door fundraiser after the media was ushered out, but with the microphones still on.
In December, during the height of the Republican primary, the president traveled to Osawatomie, Kan., where he delivered a major economic address. There, he again made it clear he was running against Republicans in Congress and conservative economic ideology.
“[I]n 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history,” Obama said. “And what did it get us? … Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation; we had little oversight; and what did it get us?”
He added this line: “We simply cannot return to this brand of ‘you’re-on-your-own’ economics….”
‘This is what they’re running on’
This past April, a year after his speech at George Washington University, Obama refined his attack, slamming Ryan’s budget – and doing it with specifics.
“Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down and proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal,” Obama said before the Associated Press luncheon. Obama then added that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had called it “right-wing social engineering” on Meet the Press.
Obama continued, trying to tie Romney to the plan.
“And yet this isn’t a budget supported by some small group in the Republican Party,” Obama said. “This is now the party’s governing platform. 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. He said that he’s very supportive of this new budget. And he even called it ‘marvelous,’ which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget. It’s a word you don’t often hear generally.”
He went on to skewer Ryan’s budget, making the most detailed case this election on it. He cited specific numbers and consequences of cuts to financial aid, medical and research grants, clean energy, education, the Department of Justice, FBI, national parks.
The president claimed, “We wouldn’t have the capacity to enforce the laws that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink or the food that we eat.”
He even said Ryan’s budget “would likely result in more flight cancellations, delays and the complete elimination of air traffic control services” as a consequence of the cuts proposed to the Federal Aviation Administration.
That’s not to mention Medicare, which Obama warned would become a “voucher plan” and “end Medicare as we know it.”
“If health care costs rise faster than the amount of the voucher, as, by the way, they’ve been doing for decades, that’s too bad,” Obama said of the plan. “Seniors bear the risk. If the voucher isn’t enough to buy a private plan with the specific doctors and care that you need, that’s too bad.”
He continued, “So most experts will tell you the way this voucher plan encourages savings is not through better care at cheaper cost. The way these private insurance companies save money is by designing and marketing plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors, cherry-picking, leaving the older and sicker seniors in traditional Medicare, where they have access to a wide range of doctors and guaranteed care. But that, of course, makes the traditional Medicare program even more expensive and raises premiums even further. The net result is that our country will end up spending more on health care, and the only reason the government will save any money, it won’t be on our books, is because we shifted it to seniors. They’ll bear more of the costs themselves. It’s a bad idea, and it will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.”
Expect to hear a lot of that in the next few weeks.
Lines are drawn
Ryan proved again during his speech Saturday why he is one of the best ideological economic messengers in his party. He may make a tough policy charge, but he does it with a soft edge.
“No one disputes President Obama inherited a difficult situation. And, in his first two years, with his party in complete control of Washington, he passed nearly every item on his agenda,” Ryan said before hitting the president hard. “But that didn't make things better. In fact, we find ourselves in a nation facing debt, doubt and despair.”
That will be the central Romney-Ryan argument – President Obama tried, but his policies failed.
Obama’s argument – we tried it Republicans’ way, and it’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
And now Romney has handed Obama the specifics the president has been trying to tie to the presumptive Republican nominee. (“This is what they’re running on. … He even called it ‘marvelous.’”)
The Obama campaign is already out with a web video with this message: “With Romney and Ryan, the choice for women, the elderly, veterans, students, middle-class families, couldn't be clearer.” It closes with: "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan: Back to the failed top-down policies that crashed our economy."
There are already indications the Romney campaign may try to give the candidate some wiggle room on the Ryan budget. According to Romney campaign talking points reported by CNN, Romney “will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.”
But it is going to be very difficult for Romney to try to separate himself from Ryan’s plan with Ryan on the ticket.
The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes, the same authors who pushed for the Ryan pick, wrote before the selection that Romney had given “a clear and unequivocal defense of Ryan’s entitlement reforms. No hedging, no qualification.” And: “Romney has praised Ryan’s budget without qualification.” And they called the Ryan budget “in a sense, the official Republican governing roadmap.”
Picking Ryan will be seen as a full embrace of the Ryan plan. If it’s not, economic conservatives would likely pounce.
The two sides will have starkly different economic messages. The lines of division couldn’t be more clearly drawn. Not only did Romney get his man, but so did Obama.