By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 9:22 PM
RACINE, WIS. -- President Obama launched a broad attack against Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, accusing them of being out of touch with ordinary Americans and sympathetic to oil interests as he sought to capitalize on recent remarks that many in the Democratic Party view as potentially costly political gaffes.
Obama took the rare step of singling out House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) for comments he made to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier in the week, when he likened the pending financial legislation to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon."
"He can't be that out of touch with the struggles of American families," Obama told an audience during a town hall meeting here in a city with an extraordinarily high unemployment rate. "And if he is, he has to come here to Racine, and ask people if they think the financial crisis was an ant."
Boehner, in an interview, fired back at the White House, saying that "they're the ones who are out of touch" while defending his critique of the legislation.
"The American people want us to deal with the economy and jobs," he said. "And what have they dealt with? They've dealt with health care. They've dealt with cap and trade. And then they've gone overboard with the financial regulatory bill. Growing the size of government, taking more from the American people at a time when Americans want them to focus in on the economy."
The rhetorical volleys helped frame the debate that will dominate the fall elections. Boehner and the Republicans claim that Obama has unleashed a torrent of government spending and regulation that threatens the economy and the personal freedoms of Americans. The president and his Democratic allies argue that Republican indifference could have turned the deep recession into a depression and that the GOP now is more interested in protecting banks and big corporations rather than struggling families.
In addition to Boehner, Obama took on Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), accusing him of sympathizing with BP during the ongoing oil spill. "The top Republican on the energy committee even had the nerve to apologize to BP," Obama said. "Apologize to BP!"
Obama acknowledged that Barton had subsequently taken the apology back, but added: "He meant it."
Campaigning for the midterms will accelerate after Labor Day, but both sides are already testing their arguments. Democrats are invoking memories of the Bush era, and Obama on Wednesday declared that Republican economic ideas had already been tried -- and failed.
"We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future. We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward," Obama said.
"We know what their ideas are," the president said. "We know where they led us."
Republicans are ratcheting up a theme that has gained steam since the passage of health care: that Obama is implementing unwanted change, and doing so too fast, resulting in a massive expansion of the federal government.
In the interview, Boehner defended his "ant" metaphor, saying the reference "was not a judgment of the financial crisis."
"It was how to fix it," he said. "Clearly there were holes in our regulatory process and we could have fixed those holes, but that's not what this bill does. This bill goes way beyond all of that and puts the federal government in a huge role in terms of how our whole financial system's going to work in the future. That's what I was talking about."
Boehner said he worries that the economy could undergo a double-dip recession, saying he fears debt refinancing in Europe later this year could bring "more shocks to the system." But he firmly rejected the administration's course in dealing with the crisis.
"I'm not a Keynesian economist," he said. "I just think that all the spending that they've pumped out there has done virtually nothing."
House Republicans also released a new report that Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said shows that the administration's stimulus package "has been an even bigger failure than most Americans realize."
Boehner challenged the president's reading of the public mood, arguing that administration policies, rather than saving the economy, threaten the economic and personal freedoms that have been critical to making the country "an opportunity machine" for more than two centuries.
"This is what America is saying. I hear it every place I go," he said. "And you look at the discontent out there. There's anger. There's frustration that Washington's not listening. But if you listen closely and listen long enough, there's a lot of fear out there that the country that people grew up in is not going to be the country their kids and grandkids grow up in."
Boehner also said Republicans have "a great opportunity" to win control of the House in November, but he described it as "an uphill climb" in part because Democrats have a financial advantage that could be decisive in some close races.
Obama, for his part, seemed in Racine to be enjoying himself, by turns ridiculing his rivals and prodding them. He took a handful of questions.
Perhaps the venue explained why Obama seemed so relaxed: He was back in an auditorium where he had stopped during the presidential campaign, holding a town hall style meeting with inquisitive but mostly friendly swing state voters, targeting his political opponents rather than facing sharp questions about his own leadership. Not one voter asked him about the oil spill in the gulf, or Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dismissal from his post in Afghanistan.