In Debt Speech, Barack Obama Fires 2012 Warning Shots

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President Obama is scheduled to travel to Chicago Thursday, where he will appear at a fundraiser not far from his brand new reelection campaign headquarters. But Obama supporters do not have to wait until Thursday night to get a taste of what Obama wants the 2012 campaign to look like.

The president’s speech Wednesday at George Washington University was billed as a serious policy address about his plans for kicking off his reelection. But it was more than that. It was a campaign speech, and a clear signal that Obama’s advisers expect the debt issue to carry over past 2011 into the 2012 campaign. After a brief homage to bipartisanship, he began by reprising a key campaign storyline from 2008: The fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress between 2000 and 2006.

After Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program, but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts; tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

This was not bridge-building language. And it would get more combative. The bulk of his speech focused on a critique of the Paul Ryan budget proposal, which Obama suggested was not just cynical, but almost un-American.

I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them; 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. . . . We are presented with a vision that says the American people, the United States of America, the greatest nation on Earth, can’t afford any of this.

Obama did not mention Ryan by name, but he did try to hang his plan around the necks of Obama’s 2012 rivals, saying it had been “embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates.”  In fact, as Jon Ward has reported at Huffington Post, most of the candidates have been careful to keep a safe distance from the Ryan proposal, praising it in only the broadest ways.

To be sure, there was policy in the speech, which Massimo, Jay and Kate deal with below, and there are sure to be serious negotiations between Obama and Republicans in the months ahead to address the deficit. It can also be said that Republican leaders, holding a rival press conference on Capitol Hill, hit just as combative political notes, loudly ruling out any tax increases to deal with the deficits, a position that effectively calls for indefinite extensions of tax cuts that are set to expire under current law.

But Obama’s speech was not the speech of the adult in the room, seeking to smooth the political waters, as White House aides have been hinting in recent days. This was the speech of a man in the arena, ready to rile up his base, fight for the center, and win the next election.