House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday accused
President Obama of attacking “straw men” in his second inauguration speech,
arguing that the president mischaracterized Republicans’ position on
federal entitlement programs.
“No one is suggesting that what we call our earned entitlements – entitlements you pay for, like payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security – are putting you in a ‘taker’ category,” Ryan said on conservative commentator Laura Ingraham’s radio show. “No one would suggest that whatsoever.”
Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee and his party’s leader when it comes to pressing for federal entitlement reform, contended that Obama made a “switcheroo” in his speech by suggesting that Republicans have referred to beneficiaries of those programs as “takers.” In reality, he said, that term refers to recipients of welfare and other non-“earned” entitlements.
“I think when the president does kind of a switcheroo like that, what he’s trying to say is that we’re maligning these programs that people have earned throughout their working lives,” Ryan said. “So, it’s kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default, is essentially what that rhetorical device is that he uses, over and over and over.”
Ryan has previously argued that as many as 60 percent of Americans "get more benefits in dollar value from the federal government than they pay back in taxes," as New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait notes.
He also took aim at Obama’s remark at a news conference last week that some Republicans are “suspicious” about what government should and should not do.
“He said at a press conference last week that we have ‘suspicions’ about feeding poor children and Social Security and health care for the old age,” Ryan told Ingraham. “We don’t have suspicions about it. We actually have plans to save these programs so they actually work.”
Ryan wasn’t the only Republican lawmaker voicing criticism Tuesday of Obama’s inaugural address.
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered a particularly scathing review. "The era of liberalism is back," he said of its message. He called it "unabashedly far left of center.
"If the president pursues that kind of agenda, obviously, it's not designed to bring us together and certainly not designed to deal with the transcendent issue of our era, which is deficit and debt. Until we fix that problem, we can't fix America and we cannot leave behind for our kids the kind of America our parents left behind for us," McConnell told reporters.
That analysis, however, was rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "A liberal speech? I really don’t know what that means," he scoffed. "I thought it was a really good speech. People can criticize President Obama about a lot of things. But not his ability to communicate. I think he communicated to the American people a message of hope, a message of action and I liked it very much. We should move past the name calling phase."
At a meeting with fellow conservative lawmakers, Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said the speech sounded awfully familiar.
“If you sit and read it on paper and try not to hear it in his voice, but just read the words, in many ways I’ve heard that exact same speech dozens and dozens and dozens of times from hard-left activists,” Schweikert said. “It sounded like every standardized left-wing speech. And if you start to dice it – okay, if you’re after social justice, then dammit -- a job, a growing economy is social justice.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a frequent Obama critic, also lamented the president’s tone and focus, noting in a statement that the beginning of a second presidential term “has historically been an opportunity for the president to signal a willingness to move past political divisions and unite all Americans for the common good.”
Instead of uniting the country, Obama “chose to divide us as a people,” Lee said. “This is not the approach of a leader attempting to find solutions to problems but rather the tactics of a partisan trying to pick political fights. His vision for the next four years is clear: defend a broken system, ignore the fiscal crisis, and drive future generations further into debt.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this story.