(Larry Downing / Reuters )
Parma, Ohio — President Obama laid out a sweeping argument for retaining Democrats and punishing Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, calling on voters Wednesday to reject economic policies advanced by the GOP that he said favor millionaires at the expense of struggling families.
Obama took the unusual step of describing the financial and medical struggles he, First Lady Michelle Obama and their families have faced, personalizing a deeply political debate as he sought to position himself firmly on the side of middle-class families.
The president proposed $180 billion in new construction and tax credits meant to spur investment and research. But the address, at a community college near Cleveland, also represented an intensifying campaign by Obama to discredit Republicans and craft a road map for Democrats confronting a challenging election cycle that may cost them scores of congressional seats.
Obama singled out an Ohio Republican, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, an architect of a GOP strategy that Obama said aims to obstruct his agenda and to restore policies from the George W. Bush era, including tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
The speech recalled presidential campaign addresses in which Obama drew forceful partisan distinctions while appealing to traditional values of fairness and opportunity.
Democratic loyalists have waited impatiently for Obama to adopt a more aggressive, partisan tone that frames the choice facing voters in November. And although the push comes late in a tough season for Democrats, White House officials maintained that now is the moment when American families are returning to post-summer schedules and focusing on political matters.
Republicans criticized the address, even though many GOP lawmakers have generally supported the economic proposals Obama advanced.
The president's proposal for an immediate tax write-off of new equipment purchases for businesses was a centerpiece of tax proposals promoted by his Republican rival during the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. And Republican lawmakers have routinely supported extending the popular tax credit for business research and development.
Even so, experts questioned whether the inconsistency would win political points for Obama or the Democrats.
"So, Republicans are going to filibuster the R&D credit even though they supported it," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "I just think it's way below the vast majority of voters."
More evidence of a weakening economy came Wednesday just as Obama began his speech: The Federal Reserve's latest survey of U.S. economic conditions found "widespread signs of a deceleration" in late summer compared with earlier this year.
The primary aim of Obama's speech was to offer a convincing rebuttal to a line of attack coming from opponents who charge that his economic stimulus plan and other policies have failed to trigger a recovery.
The president acknowledged that he deserved some blame, saying his policies haven't worked quickly enough. Progress, he said, has been "painfully slow." But returning Congress to Republican hands would be worse, he said.
"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 said. "Do we settle for a slow decline, or do we reach for an America with a growing economy and a thriving middle class?"
The White House chose the Cleveland area as part of a strategy to raise Boehner's profile. The president mentioned the Ohio lawmaker 10 times in the course of the address.
Boehner spoke last month in Cleveland, criticizing the stimulus program and other administration economic policies.
Obama mentioned Boehner's appearance there, saying, "There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decade that they were in power — the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations."
Earlier in the day, Boehner suggested that Obama extend the expiring Bush tax cuts for two years. He also called for a freeze on federal spending at 2008 levels.
Elevating Boehner's profile poses two potential risks for the president. As a candidate, Obama promised to end the squabbling commonplace in Washington. At the same time, he is putting himself on a par with a Republican leader whom many Americans might not know well.
White House officials believe the risk is worth it. They are eager to put a face on Republican policies. In the view of White House aides, no Republican elected official has any kind of national stature, leaving them swatting elusive targets.
Obama used the speech to formally roll out his latest economic proposal.