In 2008, Ryan released the first version of his budget, the “Roadmap for America’s Future.” So while Obama and the Democrats in 2009 were pushing big plans to stimulate the economy and reshape the health-care system, Republicans had a big plan of their own all ready to go.
But as Ryan Lizza recounted in the New Yorker, Republican leaders “wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap.” Their theory was that Obama’s agenda was rapidly becoming unpopular, and the smart strategy was to attack, attack, attack. The dumbest thing they could do would be to release a grand bit of, shall we say, “right-wing social engineering” that promised to privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare and block grant Medicaid while eliminating the capital gains tax, ending the tax deductibility of employer-based health insurance — and more.
The Obama team made the same strategic assessment, which is why, as the president’s poll numbers dropped, it did everything in its power to publicize Ryan and his budget. In January 2010, Obama spoke at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, where he couldn’t stop talking up that Paul Ryan guy.
“You study this stuff and take it pretty seriously,” he told Ryan.
“I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” Obama told Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).
He even gave Ryan personal compliments: “The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics. You don’t get a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan’s a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.’ ” It was a lovefest.
But it quickly became something else. A few days later, Obama’s then-budget director, Peter Orszag, dismantled Ryan’s budget at a news conference. That set the tenor for the next year, during which administration aides continued trying to raise Ryan’s profile and establish his budget as the Republican alternative — all so they could destroy it.
Unfortunately for them, Ryan’s profile wasn’t rising fast enough. So Obama did something very unusual. Typically, sitting presidents ignore doomed proposals from the minority party. But on April 13, 2011, with Ryan sitting in the audience, Obama delivered a searing speech — perhaps the toughest of his presidency to that point — on the subject of Ryan’s budget. He said it would mean an America that “would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.” He called it “a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic.”