WASHINGTON — In combative campaign form, President Barack Obama accused Republican leaders on Tuesday of becoming so radical and dangerously rigid that even the late Ronald Reagan, one of their most cherished heroes, could not win a GOP primary if he were running today.
Obama, in a stinging speech to an audience of news executives, had unsparing words for Republicans on Capitol Hill as well as the man he is most likely to face off against in November, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The president depicted the election as a choice between a Democratic candidate who wants to use government to help people succeed and Republicans who would abandon a basic compact with society and let most people struggle at the expense of the rich.
He framed his address around a new House Republican budget plan, saying it represents a bleak, backward "radical vision."
"It is thinly veiled social Darwinism," Obama said to the annual meeting of The Associated Press. "It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it ... It is a prescription for decline."
Republicans shot back that the president had offered a deeply partisan speech devoid of accountability.
Campaigning outside Milwaukee just before Obama spoke, Romney said that the president "of course will look for someone else to blame." The Republican Party chairman, Reince Priebus, said Obama had abandoned his hope-and-change campaign slogan of four years ago. Said Priebus: "All along, he's been a cold, calculating, big-spending politician."
Obama's speech removed any doubt that the general election was under way for the president, despite his professed reluctance to weigh in before Republicans settle on a nominee.
He took a couple of digs at Romney, playing up the Republican presidential front-runner's support for a budget-slashing plan the House has approved.
That plan is doomed to die in the Senate, but Obama held it up as a sign of the disaster that would come if Republicans got their way: poor children not getting food, grandparents unable to afford nursing homes, more airline flights getting canceled and weather forecasts becoming less reliable.
For Obama, it was the latest in a string of efforts to get his message out just as voters were going to the polls to help pick his opponent, this time in primaries Tuesday in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Romney is on a pace to clinch the nomination by the end of the primary season in June.
By invoking Reagan, a beloved Republican, Obama sought to take GOP charges of Obama extremism and turn them back on the party. He cited a presidential debate in the current campaign in which the entire field of Republican candidates rejected the idea of $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax hikes if that were offered in a debt-reduction deal.
"Ronald Reagan, who, as I recall, is not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control — that for him to make a deal — he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases," Obama said. "He could not get through a Republican primary today."
Obama, in fact, managed to mention and associate his thinking with six Republican presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush.
By contrast, he portrayed today's opposition leadership as abandoning centrist positions and compromise.
"We have to think about our fellow citizens, with whom we share a community," Obama said. "This sense of responsibility to each other and our country, this isn't a partisan feeling. This isn't a Democratic or a Republican idea; it's patriotism."
The House budget proposal is led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Romney supporter. It aims to slash the deficit and the size of government while offering sharply lower tax rates in return for eliminating many popular tax breaks. Obama offered a blow-by-blow critique of it, warning his audience at the start to "bear with me."
When he was finished, House Speaker John Boehner said, "The president has resorted to distortions and partisan potshots."
The president also sought to influence media coverage in speaking to publishers and editors from around the country. He said the fact that the two parties are fighting does not mean they are equally to blame, and that Republicans have shown they will not budge.
"This bears on your reporting," Obama told the journalists.
Asked about the fate of his health care reform law, his signature legislative achievement, Obama said his administration was "not spending a whole lot of time planning for contingencies" in the event that the law is struck down. He said he expected the Supreme Court to uphold the law as constitutional because justices "take their responsibilities very seriously."
Making the case for a second term, Obama said the central question of the election will be how to restore security for Americans who work hard and show responsibility.
"That's why I ran in 2008," he said. "It's what my presidency has been about. It's why I'm running again."
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Milwaukee contributed to this story.