DAVENPORT, IOWA — President Obama left an unmistakable impression on his first campaign swing since the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate: His play for the middle is getting personal.
While the airwaves hum with nasty attacks from both tickets, the president is intensifying a subtle but clear attempt to portray himself as the regular guy of this campaign — and to cast Ryan (R-Wis.) and Romney as out of step with all but the most far-right and wealthiest Americans.
Over three days and a dozen stops across this battleground state this week, Obama offered a road map of how he will appeal to the moderate and independent voters who will help decide the 2012 election.
He talked about the usual subjects of taxes and preserving the government investments, such as education aid, that help the middle class. But he also cast himself as the one who better understands — and has actually lived — the plight of such voters.
“We understand what our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents taught us — if you work hard, this is the country to be,” Obama told one Iowa crowd. “You may meet some barriers some times, there may be some hurdles, but you can’t be stopped when you decide on something. And that’s what’s at stake in this election. Do we affirm those values and pass them on to our kids and our grandkids just like we got them from our parents and our grandparents?”
Ryan’s entrance into the race Saturday has emboldened Obama to intensify the contrast. Ryan is the “ideological leader” of the House Republicans, the president said — the author of a GOP budget proposal that would make deep cuts in federal programs and grant $5 trillion in tax breaks, much of which would go to wealthy Americans.
“He is an articulate spokesman for Governor Romney’s vision,” Obama said of Ryan in Dubuque. “I just happen to fundamentally disagree with his vision. My opponent and his friends in Congress, they believe that if you just get rid of more regulations on big corporations and big banks, and then you give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, that that will automatically lead to jobs and prosperity for ordinary families. And I’m not exaggerating here, that’s their basic economic plan.”
Romney and Ryan have not been letting Obama’s rhetoric go unchallenged. Both have been talking plenty about how Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act reduced the Medicare budget by more than $700 billion, which Romney has said that he would restore. (Ryan has offered no details about his own proposal to overhaul Medicare, which adopted many of the same cuts that the health law included.)
“The president’s campaign says this raid of Medicare to pay for Obamacare, which leads to fewer services for current seniors, is an achievement,” Ryan told an Ohio crowd this week. “Do you think raiding Medicare to pay for Obamacare is an achievement?”
“No!” yelled the crowd at the Miami University Engineering Quad, which was a mix of students and older supporters.
“Well, neither do I. . . . It’s not right. He knows it. He can’t defend it,” Ryan said.
A big part of Obama’s play in Iowa this week was to embrace as an old friend the state that launched his presidential ambitions.
“It’s so good to be back . . . because this is really where our movement began — here in Iowa,” Obama told supporters in Marshalltown.
Obama’s fond memories contrast sharply with Iowans’ standoffishness toward Romney — both four years ago, when he lost the Republican caucuses despite spending heavily here, and this January, when he barely won despite a weak field and a series of harsh TV attacks against his top opponents.
More than once during his speeches this week, Obama encouraged Romney to visit Iowa — as if the Republican is a stranger who has never been here or doesn’t understand the struggles of its people.
“Maybe he needs to come to Iowa to learn something about wind power,” Obama said during one typical speech, in a packed middle-school gymnasium in Marshalltown, in which he criticized Romney for opposing a tax-cut extension for wind energy. “He’d know if he came here that 7,000 jobs have been created here in Iowa by the wind industry — more than any other state in America. If he came to Iowa, he might know that not only are we putting out these windmills, but, increasingly, they’re made right here in Iowa, made here in America.”
It’s an image — he as the empathetic leader, Romney as the distant patrician — that Obama would like voters to embrace across the country.
Even first lady Michelle Obama, who joined her husband Wednesday for the final day of the Iowa tour, lent a hand in drawing the contrast — albeit in gentler packaging that focused on the president’s biography and left unsaid how it contrasted with the privileged upbringing of his opponent.
“We all know who my husband is, don’t we?” she asked a roaring crowd in a quaint shopping district of Davenport late Wednesday afternoon. “And we all know what he stands for. And I remind people, your president is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills. He’s the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at a bank. So I remind people that Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. And he knows what it means to want something better for your kids and your grandkids. And that’s why I love him, and that’s why I will have his back forever.”