In theory it seemed possible that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in his position as House Budget Committee chairman might be the most visible and important opponent to the president. In the last week or so it has become so evident and Ryan’s articulation of both a vision and a specific budget plan has been so compelling that one can only marvel at his ability to utterly upstage — indeed, obliterate — the presidential contenders. Take, for example, this response to the president’s speech on Wednesday:

His words are tough, but his tone is measured and his presence is commanding. Ryan’s comments sound more presidential than the president’s. (“Exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy, and anxiety is not hope; it’s not change. It’s partisanship. We don’t need partisanship. We don’t need demagoguery. We need solutions. And we don’t need to keep punting to other people to make tough decisions. If we don’t make tough decisions today, our children are going to have to make much, much tougher decisions tomorrow.”)

Frankly, it’s not even clear what President Obama was presenting. Is this a real budget that can be scored? He’s using a 12-year budget outlook, termed “bizarre” by budgeting gurus. He’s called for another round of new taxes, but what are they and how does this mesh with the debt commission’s reform proposal that recommends rates be lowered? He wants to slash defense, but doesn’t tell us what programs and personnel will get the ax or how we will meet our national security needs if the goal is simply to reach a dollar amount in cuts.

As for health care, the Wall Street Journal editorial board puts it best:

[Obama’s] own plan is to double down on the program’s price controls and central planning. All Medicare decisions will be turned over to and routed through an unelected commission created by ObamaCare—which will supposedly ferret out “unnecessary spending.” Is that the same as “waste and abuse”?

Fifteen members will serve on the Independent Payment Advisory Board, all appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. If per capita costs grow by more than GDP plus 0.5%, this board would get more power, including an automatic budget sequester to enforce its rulings. So 15 sages sitting in a room with the power of the purse will evidently find ways to control Medicare spending that no one has ever thought of before and that supposedly won’t harm seniors’ care, even as the largest cohort of the baby boom generation retires and starts to collect benefits.

This is far more disruptive to seniors than anything Ryan would dare dream up. Ryan wants seniors who can afford it to shoulder more of the costs; Obama wants to cut off care. Only liberals could find Obama’s plan more compassionate.

I’ve been very critical of the Senate Republicans’ balanced budget amendment because it’s flash with no specifics; it leaves the heavy lifting and tough choices to others. But the same is true of Obama’s non-budget plan. As Fred Barnes put it, “For all his vagueness, the president did set a goal of reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years. He offered no specifics, only broad categories. But it’s specifics that matter. Goals for cutting spending are easy to set. They’re a Washington specialty. They’re just never met.”

But let’s get back to Paul Ryan, who has laid out specifics. He’s now engaged in a debate (on successive days, albeit not side by side) with the president. His grasp of the details, his ability to relate them to a conservative vision for the future, and frankly, his earnest effort to preserve programs for the sick and old ( how else are we going to keep Medicare and Medicaid functioning?) make him a powerful combatant on the national stage. He may not be seeking the presidency, but he is already leading the opposition and setting the agenda for the 2012 election.

At some point, party activists and establishment conservatives, I expect, will plead, if not insist, that he run. And after months of being the lone and most credible proponent of fiscal sanity, he may have a hard time answering a simple question: Who else could turn his plan into reality and unite conservatives and independents?