Depending on your viewpoint, President Obama on Tuesday either delivered the speech you’ve been waiting for — a sharp rebuke of the GOP’s “radical” budget — or strayed too deeply into unbecoming campaign rhetoric. “He’s not really acting like a commander-in-chief, but more like a campaigner in chief,” budget architect and speculated GOP running mate Paul Ryan said Tuesday, laughing off the president’s remarks.
Either way, there’s little doubt that Obama’s fiery words are a sign we’re wading into the fighting days of the general election, and sets the president again on the tricky high-wire of both rallying supporters who feel he hasn’t fought back enough against his Republican opponents and convincing independent voters who are weary of the hyper-partisanship in Washington. It’s also a reminder of the different rules of rhetoric we as an electorate assign to an incumbent campaigning for re-election and the challenger who’s going after him.
The speech, delivered Tuesday at an Associated Press luncheon, had the president calling Mitt Romney by name (poking fun at his use of the word “marvelous” to describe the GOP plan), branding the budget “laughable” and a “Trojan Horse,” and referring to the Republican’s deficit reduction plan as an effort to “impose a radical vision on our country” and “thinly veiled social Darwinism” that rewards the rich and punishes the poor and middle class. These are not traditionally thought of as the words of a president who is trying to find common ground or fulfill the promise of bringing two parties together.
One wonders whether there’s anyone left who really cares. As a bruising GOP primary begins to wind down — the contests are not over, but Romney’s wins Tuesday help solidify his status — there is almost no talk among the candidates of trying to re-unite American voters. Rather, a candidate’s ability to bridge political divides has hardly been a selling point in the contests thus far. Quite the opposite: The typical primary-season efforts to woo the party’s most conservative voters have seemed even more extreme than usual.
Had one of the GOP candidates used similar language, it may have made headlines, but not surprising ones. “Radical” may just be one of the most common words used on the GOP campaign trail. Candidates have used similarly blistering terms to talk about the president, describing Obama as a “snob” and his policies as socialism, all while calling him the “food-stamp president” or the “appeaser-in-chief.”
As a result, I find the complaints about the president taking on too much of a campaign tone a little empty. True, tradition may have assigned different rules for the incumbent’s campaign style — sitting presidents must appear to be simultaneously diplomatic yet passionate, statesmanlike but aggressively authoritative. And there’s little doubt that holding the office does demand that the president steer clear of personal attacks or criticism that has little to do with policy or practice. But until both sides honor the same kind of demeanor and rhetoric on the campaign trail that we expect from holding the office of the president, a fiery — if above-the-fray — campaign style seems like fair game to me.
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