WASHINGTON -- House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came out swinging at President Barack Obama in a Wednesday speech, charging the president with dividing the nation and fueling notions of class warfare as he barnstorms the country selling the public on his jobs plan.
"Instead of appealing to the hope and optimism that were hallmarks of his first campaign, he has launched his second campaign by preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment," Ryan said during remarks at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
"This has the potential to be just as damaging as his misguided policies," he said. "Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger. Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country -- corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless."
Ryan's criticisms came in a speech titled, "Saving the American Idea: Rejecting Fear, Envy and the Politics of Division." In it, Ryan said the president is hurting the economy and the nation with divisive language that pits Republicans against the middle-class as he travels the country building support for pieces of his jobs package.
"Just last week, the President told a crowd in North Carolina that Republicans are in favor of 'dirtier air, dirtier water, and less people with health insurance,'" he said. "Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care?"
Ryan also complained that Obama won't work with Republicans to boost the economy via ideas laid out in their budget plan, which seeks massive spending cuts and turning Medicare into a voucher system. Instead of trying to find common ground with Republicans, Ryan said Obama has settled on "demagoguery" in the way he is presenting his jobs package to the public. Democrats are making the case that GOP opponents of Obama's jobs proposal are siding with the wealthy over the middle-class, given that the $447 billion plan would largely be paid for by raising taxes on millionaires.
"We're now getting this class warfare that pits people against each other," Ryan said. "He is going from town to town, impugning the motives of Republicans, setting up straw men and scapegoats, and engaging in intellectually lazy arguments, as he tries to build support for punitive tax hikes on job creators."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pushed back on Ryan’s criticisms, noting that the GOP lawmaker was attacking Obama for being politically divisive while giving a speech at a "highly partisan conservative think tank."
"The president's commitment to overcome divisive politics is at the core of who he is," Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One. He pointed to past remarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about his top priority being to deny Obama a second term, adding, "Sounds like divisive politics to me."
Carney also took issue with the substance of Ryan's speech, citing tax cuts for "the average millionaire" and the "voucherization of Medicare" as proposals that Obama opposes.
House Republicans have talked tough on targeting corporate welfare since taking control of the House last November, but their actual legislative record doesn't quite match their rhetoric.
Their budget does include a handful of reforms for ending corporate welfare, but they are regarded by at least some economists as weak. Among them: Striking a provision in last year's financial reform legislation that would require the FDIC to dismantle failing firms (a move Republicans say would prevent more government bailouts), scaling back energy regulations, privatizing government-owned housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and reducing payments to farmers.
Ryan, notably, voted in favor of the Wall Street bailout in 2008, but against reforming financial regulation in 2010.
House Republicans have also voted against measures specifically aimed at closing corporate tax loopholes for the oil and gas industry. On July 29, all but one Republican voted against a measure that would have directed the super committee to cut oil and gas subsidies before touching education funding. In early May, all Republicans voted to bypass consideration of a measure that sought to repeal oil and gas subsidies. House Republicans in March also voted against a motion aimed at prohibiting major oil companies from getting tax breaks.
In his Wednesday remarks, Ryan said he supports Obama's call for closing tax loopholes, but said it wouldn't do much for lowering deficits. Obama's call to let the Bush tax cuts expire would translate to 8 percent of the $9.5 trillion deficit increase projected over the next 10 years, Ryan said, and eliminating oil and gas subsidies would only equal 0.5 percent of expected deficits. In addition, Obama's push to close tax loopholes for corporate jet owners would only lower projected deficits by 0.3 percent, he said.
"Look, I'm all for closing tax loopholes. But you can't close our nation's deficits by chasing ever-higher spending with politically motivated tax hikes here and there," he said. "Instead, tax reform must broaden the base and lower rates."
Ryan, however, has his own history of protecting loopholes when it comes to helping out his big donors. A look at his record since he was elected to Congress in 1998 shows that he has tried to create an array of special loopholes for his top contributors, whose interests range from air fresheners to fraternity housing to beer.
This report has been updated from its original version to include comment from Press Secretary Jay Carney.
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