President Barack Obama had Paul Ryan on his radar years before Mitt Romney selected the representative from Wisconsin as his running mate. Ryan, the president said, favors "thinly veiled social Darwinism." Further, Obama charged that Ryan dishonestly claims the mantle of deficit hawk when he actually votes for budget-busters as long as they come from his party.
And Team Obama's response to the House Budget Committee chairman's elevation to potential VP made clear that the Democrat's campaign won't overhaul so much as go into overdrive. Aides argue that Ryan amplifies rather than challenges their core message with just 88 days until the election.
The early attacks are telling: Obama's website repeatedly refers to Ryan's "extreme budget plan" as favoring the rich over the middle class (the president's core argument against Romney). The first line of its biographical sketch reads "Paul Ryan is a career Washington D.C. insider." (Obama has been running in large part against inside-the-Beltway political stalemate, casting the blame on Republicans.)
In an attack everyone in politics saw coming, the site warns that Ryan's budget "would turn Medicare into a voucher program, increasing seniors' costs by up to $6,350 per year"—an unusually precise figure seemingly tailored to shock elderly voters in pivotal battlegrounds like Florida, even though his proposal would not affect people currently over 55.
The site also highlights Ryan's opposition to abortion and his vote against legislation aimed at erasing pay discrimination against women. (Obama is counting on his "gender gap" advantage over Romney in November.) The president tweeted a link to the new content to his 18.4 million followers.
Team Obama hopes that these arguments will be enough to reassemble key parts of the coalition that powered his historic 2008 victory while limiting the political damage from the president's sorest vulnerability: an economy still sputtering and weighed down by high unemployment three and a half years after he took office.
The president, who was due to fly home to Chicago for some fundraising before a three-day bus tour in Iowa starting Monday, kept mum after the announcement. But campaign manager Jim Messina hit all of the same notes in a statement emailed to reporters.
Ryan, like Romney, favors "the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy." The Republicans would "end Medicare as we know it." And "Ryan rubber-stamped the reckless Bush economic policies that exploded our deficit and crashed our economy. Now the Romney-Ryan ticket would take us back by repeating the same, catastrophic mistakes," Messina said.
Behind the scenes, Democrats urged reporters to consider that Ryan voted for the Bush-era tax cuts (which Obama renewed in late 2010) and the war in Iraq—both policies that swelled the deficit. And they also underlined that Ryan voted (with many Democrats) to bail out big banks threatened in the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown and also supported the auto industry bailout. Those policies are frequent targets of conservative hatred—but there's no sign that this will dent their support for Ryan. In fact, the Tea Party Express group cheered the choice.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it was targeting "70 vulnerable House Republicans" with the message that Ryan's plan "ends Medicare." That's a reference to Ryan's plan to transform the hugely popular health care program for the elderly into a voucher-like system as part of an effort to contain its swelling costs. It's an argument that Obama himself has essentially been making for months—as recently as a July 19 event in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Even in a campaign that has seen Obama and Romney each try to portray the other as History's Greatest Monster (as "The Simpsons" once dubbed Jimmy Carter), some of Obama's past clashes with Ryan have had something of a personal tone.
In April 2011, Obama was caught on tape blasting Ryan to donors. In remarks reported by CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, Obama charged that Ryan was "not on the level" when it came to cutting the deficit.
"This is the same guy that 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," Obama said. (Ryan's response: "Rather than building bridges, he's poisoning wells.")
One year later, Obama charged at an Associated Press luncheon that Ryan's budget amounted to "thinly veiled Social Darwinism." (Ryan's response: Obama "has chosen to distort the truth and divide Americans in order to distract from his failed record.")
But for his part, Ryan is no stranger to leading Republican attacks on Obama—his main role as vice presidential nominee and one he has played with relish since the administration's first year. In late 2009, Ryan predicted that defeating the Democrat's health care overhaul would mean "a failed presidency" that had to negotiate with Republicans.
That might make debating Vice President Joe Biden—some three decades senior to the 42-year-old lawmaker—a bit of a letdown.
Biden's strategy? Maybe this could be a preview: Biden calls Ryan "a fine guy."
"He's a bright, handsome guy from the state of Wisconsin. He a fine guy," Biden went on. "But I think his ideas are not nearly as fine as he is a man."