President Obama may be criticized after his speech Wednesday for not providing many specifics about his plan to cut the national debt.

What he will not be criticized for is being too soft on Republicans.

The target of Obama’s speech was unmistakable, as the president used his pulpit at George Washington University to lay into the House Republican plan proposed by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

While Democrats have been trying to turn Ryan into the economic conservative bogeyman for a long time, nothing brings something into the national debate like the president talking about it at length in a speech. Obama did not mention Ryan by name, of course, but his speech ensures that Ryan’s proposal will get a significant re-airing in the days ahead.

And that, in effect, removes some of the burden from Obama’s own aggressive proposals.

Almost immediately after his speech, the reaction from Democrats in Congress was focused less on praising Obama than on deriding the Ryan approach.

“The president’s responsible vision for reducing the deficit provides a clear contrast with Republicans’ reckless plan to end Medicare and Social Security,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

“While preaching fiscal responsibility, Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues have put forth a budget that is fundamentally irresponsible and would shift a massive cost burden to the states,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Obama talked in-depth about Ryan’s plan, casting it in extremely dark terms.

He said it includes cuts that concede the very fiber of America and that “paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.” He said the plan would leave crumbling roads and collapsing bridges unfixed. He said the plan “ends Medicare as we know it” and that up to 50 million Americans could lose their insurance – all while the wealthy get tax breaks.

“That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president,” Obama said.

The statement was one of several bold pronouncements from Obama about the Ryan plan. A sampling:

* “We do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m president, we won’t.”

* On the Bush tax cuts: “I refuse to renew them again.”

* “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.”

In all, about one-sixth of the president’s 43-minute speech was dedicated to the Ryan plan, which he discussed both before and while presenting his own proposals.

The president, ever wary of coming off as a partisan warrior, was quick to emphasize that he thinks Republicans are trying to do the right thing and appreciates them contributing to the debate. But the underlying message of the speech was clear: the Republican plan is very bad.

That’s a solid strategy. As we noted last week, even Republican presidential candidates have been slow to completely embrace the ambitious cuts contained in Ryan’s budget proposal.

It’s much better for the president to be talking about something he opposes rather than getting lost in all the details of what he is for. Instead, the president’s team telegraphed the fact that he would be presenting few specifics and would instead outline broad policy goals. By doing so, they undercut what could have been — and still will be, for some — the storyline that Obama skimped on the details Wednesday.

Obama’s own broad proposals – extending current spending cuts, cutting the defense budget, reducing health care spending, reforming entitlement programs and simplifying the tax code – were capped off with what basically amounts to a guarantee: If the forecasted cuts don’t have their intended effect by 2014, he said, Congress would be forced to come together and find cuts to make up for it.

In the end, Obama turned what was a potentially dicey speech that could have completely turned off the liberal base, into a rallying cry for both the left and — if Democrats are successful — the middle, to fight against ambitious Republican proposals.

Wednesday’s speech was more about setting the terms of the battle ahead than pitching Obama’s own proposal. And in that regard, it was successful.