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Paul Ryan Pick Gives Obama a Chance to Change the Subject

Ryan’s addition to the ticket will sharpen what is already the starkest contrast over domestic policy in any presidential race in a generation.

The selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate provides President Obama with something he has been eagerly looking for — a bigger target.

A race that has revolved, at least in part, around each month’s mediocre jobs report and Mr. Obama’s persistent failure to move unemployment below 8 percent will now allow Democrats new lines of attack — starting with the assertion that Republicans are intent on dismantling Medicare — while setting off a larger debate about the role of government in the economy and society.

For Mr. Obama, that seems more promising territory, a chance to press the offensive against his challengers rather than just defend his record. Instead of a referendum on his own performance, the president has an opening to turn the election into a referendum on the vision that Mr. Ryan has advanced and Mitt Romney has adopted.

That strategy may put Mr. Obama, a self-declared agent of hope and change four years ago, in the awkward position of seeming to be the defender of a status quo that is not working, or at least not working well enough. He risks having Republicans seize the mantle of reform that he used so skillfully in 2008 by contrasting his stay-the-course incumbent’s message with the youthful Mr. Ryan’s energetic willingness to tear up the old order and reinvent it for troubled times.

After months of Mr. Obama hammering Mr. Romney’s prescriptions for the country as too radical, Mr. Ryan’s addition to the ticket will sharpen what already had been shaping up as the starkest contrast over domestic policy in any presidential race in a generation. The president and his liberal allies wasted little time on Saturday rolling out their attacks on Mr. Ryan as an avatar of extremism who would cut health care for old people to finance tax cuts for the rich.

“The architect of the radical Republican House budget,” declared Jim Messina, the president’s campaign manager. “Catering to the Tea Party and the far right,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. “Puts millionaires ahead of Medicare and the middle class,” asserted Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who leads the Democratic minority in the House.

Within an hour or so of Mr. Romney’s announcement, the Obama campaign posted a Web video labeling the Republican ticket the “Go Back Team,” a reference to policies of the past. Fund-raising appeals with targeted messages went out in swing states, like one in Ohio saying that Mr. Ryan “followed in the footsteps of his mentor,” John Kasich, the state’s governor, with “a radical, ideological budget.” Liberal interest groups, labor unions and women’s organizations began rolling out their own long-planned attacks.

The president’s political strategists were focusing on Florida, already a swing state but now perhaps ground zero for attacks on Mr. Ryan’s plans to restructure Medicare, while monitoring Wisconsin to see if the Republicans tried to invest in Mr. Ryan’s home state. Congressional election strategists were mapping out plans to force every Republican candidate for the House and Senate to own or disown Mr. Ryan’s budget plan.

“This is the perfect choice for us to finish our frame of Romney,” said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Workers’ Voice, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. “super PAC.” “What Romney and Bain did to working families and companies is what Romney and Ryan would do to all Americans.”

Bill Burton, one of the founders of Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, said his group had always planned to devote the fall to tying Mr. Romney to Mr. Ryan’s budget plan, but had worried that it might not stick.

“From the beginning when we polled, we found that the Ryan plan was the most toxic political document ever, but the problem was you couldn’t convince voters that any politician would actually support it,” Mr. Burton said. “Now this actually makes the job easier.”

Stanley B. Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said that surveys showed attacks on the Ryan plan moved voters dramatically, adding that Mr. Romney could no longer dance around it. “There is no longer a nuance to that debate,” he said. “There are a lot of white, working-class voters, particularly older ones, who will walk away now, even if tempted earlier by the slow economy.”

Mr. Obama has long suffered from a sizable generation gap. In 2008, he did poorest among those 60 and older, winning the votes of 47 percent of them compared with 66 percent of voters under 30. With polls showing younger voters less enthusiastic and less likely to turn out this year, Mr. Obama’s campaign has struggled to win over seniors, who are much more reliable voters.

John Rother, president and chief executive of the National Coalition on Health Care, an advocacy group, said older voters drifted even further away from Mr. Obama during the 2010 midterm elections after Republicans attacked the Medicare cuts incorporated into his broader health care program.

“Now, Democrats can run practically the same ad accusing Ryan of proposing a plan that would ‘gut Medicare’ and shift costs to seniors,” Mr. Rother said.

The Romney camp said Democrats were fooling themselves. “The race is now framed exactly as we want it,” said Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser. “Voters are going to judge our current struggling economy and President Obama’s lack of leadership on that issue very harshly, and then look at a Romney-Ryan ticket as an opportunity to take the country in a bold new direction towards a better future.”

The looming clash reflects an intriguing evolution from just two years ago, when Mr. Obama expressed a grudging admiration for Mr. Ryan, another young politician with big ideas. Asked in the fall of 2010 which Republicans he could envision working with in the next Congress, Mr. Obama mentioned only one who would still be around, Mr. Ryan.

He said Mr. Ryan was “absolutely sincere about wanting to reduce the deficit,” though he quarreled with his approach. “I give him credit for at least being willing to put out there some tough choices,” Mr. Obama said, “although, as I said, even there, the numbers don’t quite match up the way they should.”

What Mr. Obama found appealing, the notion of a man of ideas willing to make tough choices, is what he now will need to devalue him. While Democrats openly crowed that Mr. Ryan was the choice they had hoped for because of the sharp contrast, they acknowledged he is a young, attractive, well-spoken politician who explains his plan better than his fellow Republicans do. If he makes the issue the national debt that has risen so much under Mr. Obama, rather than his solution for it, Mr. Ryan could pose a serious challenge to the president.

In other words, to put the bull’s-eye on Mr. Ryan’s back, Mr. Obama will first have to get it off his own.

This story, “Paul Ryan Pick Gives Obama a Chance to Change the Subject,” originally appears at the New York Times News Service.

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