President Obama sought to cast the 2012 election as a stark choice between his measured approach to addressing the debt and spending problems facing the country and a fundamentally unserious approach advocated by Republicans in a speech to the Associated Press today.

Obama repeatedly castigated the Republican approach to economic matters, describing it as “laughable” at one point. He called the budget plan put forward by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (and supported by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) as a “Trojan horse” and added that it amounted to “thinly-veiled Social Darwinism.” Yowza.

Obama’s willingness to talk in such boldly partisan terms speaks to the fact that in the President’s mind, the 2012 general election has already begun. (In case you had any doubt of that fact, President Obama’s campaign launched a new flight of television ads on Monday night that hit Romney for supporting “Big Oil”.)

That Obama chose to give this speech at the AP gathering of news editors — a place where other presidents have made major addresses (in 2004 George W. Bush used this speech to make clear he would not “cut and run” from Iraq) — and on the day of the Wisconsin Republican presidential primary is not accidental. Not only does it serve as a sort of green flag dropping on the general election but it also signifies the import with which the White House regarded the address.

And, rightly so since Obama’s speech gives us our clearest glimpse yet as to how he and his campaign team will attempt to frame the choice on economic issues between now and the November election.

Today Obama cast himself as the adult in the room, willing to make the hard choices and shared sacrifices necessary to solve the looming debt crisis. He’s done that before. What was new, however, was his extended effort to paint Republicans as woefully unwilling (or unable) to meet him halfway on proposed compromises.

In one of the most interesting moments of his speech, Obama referenced a moment in the endless series of Republican presidential debates in which the candidates were asked whether they would be willing to accept a deficit deal that had $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in revenue increases. Not a single candidate said they would.

First of all, referencing something that happened in a Republican debate shows that Obama has been paying closer attention to the fight for the GOP nod than his allies like to let on.

Second, it reveals that the longer the Republican primary goes on, the more fodder it provides Obama and the White House as they seek to make the case that Republicans are more committed to scoring political points than finding policy solutions.

Not surprisingly, Republicans took considerable umbrage at being cast as lacking in seriousness by the President and sought to hoist him with his own petard.

“He’s so unserious about our country’s problems that he’s offered a budget that failed to garner a single vote in the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement released shortly after Obama’s lunchtime speech. “And his own party leadership in the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in more than 1,000 days.”

(A vote on President Obama’s proposed budget failed 414-0 in the House last week although Democrats voted against in en masse because they saw it as a ploy by Republicans to embarrass the president.)

Ryan, too, blasted the Obama speech. “The President refuses to take responsibility for the economy and refuses to offer a credible plan to address the most predictable economic crisis in our history,” said Ryan.

Polling provides a muddled picture of the ground on which this battle over seriousness on the economy will be fought.

On the one hand, President Obama’s numbers for his handling of the economy (38 percent approval in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll) and the budget deficit (32 percent approval) are dismal and have been for a very long time.

On the other, Democrats hold the edge over Republicans on which party “better represents your values” and “is more concerned with people like you”.

What’s far clearer is that this election — at least on the economic front — will be a battle over which party is genuinely serious about solving the debt and spending issues facing the country. Of course, seriousness is often in the eye of the beholder.