Updated 6:13 p.m. Eastern Time
President Obama may have been wearing a metaphorical velvet glove during his big deficit reduction speech Wednesday, but make no mistake about it: He took an iron fist to the Republicans.
Mr. Obama's speech was striking not for the details of his plan as much as the way he set up the choice between his proposal and the one offered by the GOP. Mr. Obama said his plan to save $4 trillion over 12 years was grounded in staying true to the idea that "each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity."
And that, he said, means protecting the social safety net - Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and unemployment insurance - even while reforming the programs involved. Those programs, he said, are integral to America's exceptionalism. "We would not be a great country without those commitments," argued the president.
He then went on to question the Republican plan for reflecting an abandonment of what makes America great, stating that it "would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one that we've known." The GOP plan, he said, cuts education, clean energy programs, and college scholarship programs - it says "we can't afford the America that I believe in and that I think you believe in," he told a George Washington University audience.
The Republican vision, he added, was "deeply pessimistic." The president said that Republicans are positing that America can't afford to fix its bridges, to care for seniors, to send its kids to college - that America, in the end, can't afford to be great.
And then he really went after the GOP, targeting what he said were $1 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans contained in the Paul Ryan Republican 2012 budget proposal.
"In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined," said Mr. Obama. "Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That's who needs to pay less taxes?"
"They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs," he added. "That's not right, and that's not going to happen as long as I'm president."
The Republicans, he argued, want to sell out what makes America special - its commitment to its people - in order to give the wealthiest Americans a little more spending money. The GOP vision for the country, he said, "is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America."
In service of the same theme, Mr. Obama later zeroed in on the GOP proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program, potentially leaving some seniors unable to pay for health care.
"I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs," he said. "I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations."
This was the President Obama that voters rallied around in the 2008 presidential campaign - a candidate willing and able to lay down a clear vision grounded in progressive ideals. The left has soured on Mr. Obama over the past two years as he has compromised on tax cuts for the rich, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and a host of other issues. This speech seemed designed to bring disillusioned former supporters back into the fold - though they will be watching to see to what degree he stands by his words during the coming fights over the debt ceiling and 2012 budget.
Consider how he laid out the argument against lowering taxes on the rich toward the conclusion of the speech.
"I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more," said the president. "I don't need another tax cut. Warren Buffett doesn't need another tax cut. Not if we have to pay for it by making seniors pay more for Medicare or by cutting kids from Head Start or by taking away college scholarships that I wouldn't be here without, and that some of you wouldn't be here without." (Watch the speech in full at left.)
He even made a progressive argument for reforming deficit-driving entitlement programs, arguing that "if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments."
The entire speech was grounded in the idea that America can live within its means and still remain great - and the corresponding idea that the Republican plan would make America less than what it has been. Such strong rhetoric has been rare for Mr. Obama, whose rhetorical move rightward over the past year has infuriated liberals. He offered the sort of argument Wednesday that Americans rarely see from Democrats - the suggestion, for example, that standing with America means standing with him. And that "preserving the American dream" - through his policies - is what true patriotism is all about.
In response to the speech, Republicans lambasted the president for, in the words of Tea Party-linked Sen. Jim DeMint, making it "absolutely clear today that Democrats will cling bitterly to deficit spending until our nation is bankrupt." House Speaker John Boehner said that the Obama plan, unlike the Ryan/GOP plan, offered no serious budget reduction proposals, adding that "any plan that starts with job-destroying tax hikes is a non-starter."
Ryan, who authored the House Republican budget, said the speech "was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate to addressing our country's pressing fiscal challenges."
"What we heard today was not fiscal leadership from our commander in chief," he said. "What we heard today was a political broadside from our campaigner in chief."
There's little doubt about the "political broadside" part. The Ryan/GOP budget gave Mr. Obama an opportunity to frame the deficit debate as between keeping America great and putting the rich first, and he grabbed onto it with both hands Wednesday. In typical fashion, the president initially held back in the deficit debate, opting to let Republicans make the first serious move. Now he's counterattacked with a speech that offers a moral grounding for the Democratic position in the coming budget and debt ceiling debate. With the 2012 presidential election and two major battles ahead, get ready for a dogfight.