Cagey Obama Sets an Election Trap for Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers

Republicans are far from figuring out who will be their next presidential candidate, but Barack Obama has already decided who he's running against: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a guy who isn't even in the running — at least not yet.

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, it was Ryan who put forth the draconian budget onto which nearly all House Republicans signed — a budget that would effectively end Medicare through a privatization scheme. The reasons why Republicans joined their names to such a politically risky proposition are several, but not least among them is the fact that Ryan is a favorite of David Koch and Americans For Prosperity. So, in his campaign against the Ryan plan, Obama has found his proxy for taking on the Koch machine.

By baiting Ryan to present his budget plan before the administration unveiled its own, Obama deftly played Ryan's own star-pupil, parent-pleasing nature against the eager Wisconsinite. When the president unveiled his own budget plan at a televised speech two weeks ago in Washington, he invited Ryan as his guest, and then issued a broadside against Ryan's plan, saying it was “less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

“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,” Obama continued, as Ryan looked helpless on. “And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know.”

The Republican was clearly taken aback. “When the president reached out to ask us to attend his speech, we were expecting an olive branch,” Ryan told McClatchy Newspapers. “Instead, his speech was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate, and hopelessly inadequate to address our fiscal crisis. What we heard today was not fiscal leadership from our commander-in-chief; we heard a political broadside from our campaigner-in-chief.”

Since then, Obama has continued to hammer away at Ryan. On the campaign trail in California, Obama used the words “fairly radical” to describe the Ryan plan. “I wouldn't call it particularly courageous,” Obama said. And a CBS News open mic caught Obama, the day after the president's budget speech, going after Ryan personally. McClatchy's Steve Thomma reported Obama's remarks this way:

“When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, you know, he's just being America's accountant …,” Obama said in remarks taped through an open microphone by CBS reporter Mark Knoller, “this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill — but wasn't paid for. So it's not on the level. And we've got to keep on, you know, keep on shining a light on that.”

Thomma writes that, while making those remarks, Obama assumed he was off the record. Me, I'm not so sure. Strikes me as the sound of a gauntlet hitting the ground.

While playing against Ryan, who comes off as likably earnest, is not without its risks, issue polling is playing in Obama's favor, even if his personal approval numbers sink in the face of rising gas prices. Ryan's plan, for instance, extends the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, while a spate of recent polls show the public is ready to hike taxes on those who are doing more than all right while the rest of the country struggles. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found 72 percent of Americans support tax hikes for the wealthy — with even a majority of Republicans in agreement. From the Washington Post:

At this point, 72 percent support raising taxes along those lines, with 54 percent strongly backing this approach. The proposal enjoys the support of majorities of Democrats (91 percent), independents (68 percent) and Republicans (54 percent). Only among people with annual incomes greater than $100,000 does less than a majority “strongly support” such tax increases.

That may account for why Ryan found himself booed at a town-hall meeting (VIDEO) in his congressional district when he told a constituent that such tax hikes would be redistributionist because “we do tax the top.”

The same poll also found 78 percent opposed to “cutting spending on Medicare” in order to reduce the deficit, and a McClatchy poll drew similar results. (A New York Times/CBS News poll with a different ordering of questions found 45 percent opposed, but that's still a significant number.)

While Ryan's extreme budget plan makes him a perfect poster boy for the GOP agenda in a Democratic campaign, his supporting attributes render him even more perfect as Obama plays not only to independents, but also to the Democratic base on which he will depend for turning out the vote in November 2012. Ryan, is from Wisconsin, and a beneficiary of the Koch political machine responsible for the election of the deeply unpopular Gov. Scott Walker, and Walker's union-busting budget bill.

For progressives and the Democratic base, Wisconsin has become a powerful symbol of a greater national political battle — a battle described as one drawn between the billionaire Koch brothers and their sycophants on one side, and regular Americans on the other. In 2008, Paul Ryan was celebrated by the Wisconsin Chapter of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, which is chaired by David Koch, as a “Defender of the American Dream,” in a ceremony emceed by Scott Walker. Obama has little to lose in running against the Kochs, even if in the guise of Paul Ryan, because the Kochs were never likely to go after the president with anything less than full force, especially in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which allows virtually unlimited participation by corporations in electoral politics.

However, in singling out Ryan for his ire, Obama has elevated the profile of the Wisconsin axman — so much so that word is he just might run for president in 2012. Should Ryan, in the unlikely scenario that he decides to run, win the Republican presidential nomination, the stage will be set for a nearly direct confrontation between the Koch brothers and all the forces that oppose them. But even if Ryan stays out of the fray, Obama's signal to his base will no doubt be heard.