President Obama used his speech today in Cleveland, Ohio to promote the White House's new economic plan. But the president's address also confirmed a new White House strategy in the works: casting House Minority Leader John Boehner as the face of the GOP opposition.
The president referenced Boehner, who represents Ohio, about ten times during today's speech.
And Obama linked Boehner to what he depicted as the fallback economic position of the Republican Party: an undeviating opposition to government spending.
But, Obama argued, "when these same Republicans -- including Mr. Boehner -- were in charge, the number of earmarks and pet projects went up, not down. These same Republicans turned a record surplus that Bill Clinton left into a record deficit. Just this year, these same Republicans voted against a bipartisan fiscal commission that they themselves proposed. And when you ask them what programs they'd actually cut, they usually don't have an answer."
Obama cast Boehner as a central figure in the Washington GOP's discredited past--the leader of a party that caused the recession, and the head of obstructionist bloc in Washington.
The president referred to Boehner by name seven times in his prepared speech; by contrast, in another economic speech that Obama delivered Monday, he refrained from referencing Boehner by name, and confined himself to a glancing reference to "the man who thinks he's going to be Speaker."
All political campaigns thrive on high-profile enemies. That's why Democrats have long used Republican figures such as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney as target for partisan attacks. And Republicans routinely call out what they view as the big-government excesses of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
But Boehner in some ways represents a trickier villain. For one thing, Democratic partisans like Obama are denouncing his prospective influence more than the actual agenda he's pushing in Washington. Boehner is next in line to lead the House if Republicans win a majority this November.
For another thing, Republicans themselves are eager to have Boehner be the face of teh congressional opposition, seeking to reprise the role that Newt Gingrich was able to play in the historic 1994 midterm sweep for the GOP. Party leaders have begun fundraising efforts to brand Boehner as the face of their party and increase his name identification ahead of the November elections.
The same GOP push has elevated Boehner to the post of lead Republican spokesman on the economy. Boehner has lately made a run of media appearances and speeches around the country--including a high-profile economic speech of his own in Cleveland last month. In that address, the minority leader called on the president to fire the White House economic team.
In this respect, the White House's choice of venue for today's speech was already a symbolic slap at Boehner. "POTUS goes to where Boehner spoke to show choice btwn his ideas & their failed philosophy that got us into this mess," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted Sept. 3.
Recent polling on the generic congressional ballot has been dismal for Democrats. The White House is clearly hoping to reverse that trend by demonizing Boehner and telling voters that the threat of a Boehner-run Congress should alarm them enough to give Democrats new traction in the midterm elections. The risk is that such a strategy still leaves the bulk of the ability to define the midterms' narrative in the hands of the Republicans--while making Democratic leaders looking reactive and defensive, looking more driven to score smaller points off the opposition than to advance their own political vision.
In his Wednesday speech, Obama also sought to widen the Democrats' appeal in those broader terms, stressing the benefits of his recent economic plan. The president argued against the idea of extending the Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, which are set to expire at year's end. We "can't afford the $700 billion price tag," Obama said of the tax cuts for Americans making more than $200,000 a year--while of course reminding the Cleveland crowd that Boehner and the GOP leadership want those same cuts extended.
(Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak)