WASHINGTON - President Obama eviscerated the Republicans’ budget proposal Tuesday, calling it a radical blueprint that bolsters the rich and decimates the middle class, and he leveled criticism at Mitt Romney, his probable Republican opponent in the fall, for the first time in a speech.
During his hourlong campaign-style appearance at a gathering of the nation’s newspaper executives, Obama painted a stark contrast between his visions on health care, tax fairness, and entitlements and those of congressional Republicans.
Their party, Obama said, has become so extreme that Ronald Reagan would have a tough time making it through the primary.
“It’s a Trojan horse, disguised as a deficit reduction plan,’’ Obama said of the budget put forth by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and passed by the Republican-led House last week. “It’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism.’’
In savaging the plan, Obama clearly signaled he would use it as a political truncheon against Romney in the general election.
The former Massachusetts governor has enthusiastically supported Ryan’s budget.
“He even called it marvelous, which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget,’’ Obama said, tweaking Romney’s stance and what some have called an awkwardness in some of his comments.
The $3.5 trillion Ryan budget, which is not expected to make it out of the Democrat-controlled Senate, is “so far to the right,’’ Obama said, that it makes the 1994 Republican-sponsored Contract with America “look like the New Deal.’’
Compared to the president’s budget proposal for 2013, Ryan’s plan would cut $5 trillion in spending over the next decade, reduce deficits by more than $3 trillion, and prevent Obama’s proposed tax increases on the richest Americans.
It would also repeal Obama’s health care law and partially privatize Medicare, according to the House budget committee, which Ryan leads.
Obama’s address carried the tenor and themes of a campaign speech, with the president seeking to paint himself as savior of the middle class and guardian of popular entitlement programs such as Medicare, while portraying Republicans as Wall Street protectors who look out only for the wealthy.
“What drags down our entire economy is when there’s an ever-widening chasm between the ultrarich and everybody else,’’ Obama said during a luncheon sponsored by the Associated Press for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled-down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class,’’ he said.
He hit upon some of the same themes he had put forth during his State of the Union address, including calling upon Congress to pass a new tax rule named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett that would ensure that those making more than $1 million a year pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.
“I intend to keep fighting for this kind of balance and fairness until the other side starts listening,’’ Obama said.
Republicans immediately fired back, with Ryan denouncing Obama’s “tired and cynical political attacks as he focuses on his own reelection.’’
“Like his reckless budgets, today’s speech by President Obama is as revealing as it is disappointing,’’ Ryan said in a statement. “While others lead by offering real solutions, he has chosen to distort the truth and divide Americans in order to distract from his failed record.’’
Obama took apart the Ryan budget, predicting widespread problems if it is passed. Starting in 2014, he said, everything from medical research and health care for the elderly, poor, and disabled to the nation’s border security, and airline punctuality would be in jeopardy.
“This is not conjecture,’’ Obama said. “I am not exaggerating. These are facts. And these are just the cuts that would happen the year after next.’’
Romney scoffed at such a characterization, calling it a “disingenuous, fear-mongering approach.’’
“This is a president who so misrepresents the policies and proposals of our party and of myself as well, and then fails to acknowledge the mistakes and errors in his own record,’’ Romney said during an appearance Tuesday evening on a radio show hosted by conservative analyst Sean Hannity.
Romney, who will address the newspaper editors on Wednesday, also took Obama to task for defending, two days in a row, his signature health care overhaul.
During the question and answer portion of Tuesday’s address, Obama had repeated his assertion from the previous day that he expects the court to abide by well-established precedent and uphold the constitutionality of the health care law that was passed by a majority in a democratically elected Congress.
Doing any else would amount to judicial activism, he said.
When pressed by Hannity about Obama’s comments, Romney laughed and said, “You know, he just makes it up as he goes along,’’ pointing out that the health care law passed by only a slim majority, without any Republican votes.
While the ensuing months will no doubt be full of “gaffes and minor controversies,’’ Obama said, “there are also big fundamental issues at stake right now’’ that deserve serious debate and coverage.Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.