Obama to take on Boehner directly in Ohio speech; GOP senses panic

President Obama will use a high-profile address on the economy Wednesday in Cleveland to further elevate House GOP Leader John Boehner as the foil Democrats want to run against in an uphill election year.

In blogs and speeches, Obama and administration aides have repeatedly targeted the longtime Ohio lawmaker possibly poised to become Speaker, but Wednesday’s address by the president will be the most direct assault yet.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama specifically chose Cleveland as the site to lay out his new economic proposals because of Boehner’s address on the economy two weeks ago there.

He said Obama “will spend a decent amount of time” contrasting his economic views with Boehner’s, which the White House argues would return the country to failed policies that led to a financial crisis and recession.


Obama is expected to include a forceful defense of his plans to let tax cuts on the wealthiest taxpayers expire at the end of the year while extending tax cuts on the middle class. 

Boehner and Republicans have hammered the president on this point, arguing that all of the tax cuts should be extended. The GOP received an unlikely boost Tuesday from Obama's former budget director Peter Orszag, who argued the tax cuts on the wealthy should be extended for two years, and that all of the tax cuts should be allowed to expire at that point.

Boehner’s office seems delighted with the White House strategy, which it framed Tuesday as a desperate and “unprecedented” move by an administration worried it is on the verge of seeing both chambers of Congress go GOP.

“You can sense the panic setting in,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in an e-mail.

“When was the last time a sitting president of the United States chose to follow the minority leader of the House of Representatives to a city and respond to his or her speech?” Steel asked.

White House officials say the goal is not to make Boehner the face of the Republican Party, as it has done with critics like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

Instead, the White House wants to make Boehner, a 10-term lawmaker who was a member of the GOP leadership during Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) reign in the 1990s, a symbol of the policies a Republican Congress would pursue, an official said.

They believe this strategy will work because of Boehner’s support for Bush-era policies, notably his call for an extension of all the tax cuts ushered in by President George W. Bush.

Obama wants to extend only the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 and families with incomes below $250,000. The fight over tax policy is expected to play out in the two months before the midterm election.

Democrats don’t believe Boehner is enough of a household name to become the face of the GOP by Election Day.

“He’s not even the most famous fake tan in America,” joked one senior Democratic official. “He’s still behind Snooki on that front.”

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Separately,the White House official insisted the administration is not trying to elevate Boehner as a personality, but acknowledged the effort will raise the lawmaker’s name ID.

“I think what we’re doing is raising his profile, but using him to illustrate the choice between the policies that he would promise as Speaker of the House to take us back and the policies the president wants to put in place to move us forward,” a White House official said.

The White House and its allies in Congress and at the Democratic National Committee have elevated Boehner before with their rhetoric.

In late June, the White House jumped on Boehner’s statement to a Pittsburgh newspaper that the Wall Street reform bill amounted to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.” Obama himself said Boehner’s statement showed he was out of touch with the impact the financial crisis had on middle-class workers and homeowners.

Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, said Boehner is an easy target for the White House. He’s a veteran force in Washington who can be labeled as a professional politician, something useful in an election where voters are outraged with the way Washington works.

“He’s less known than either Newt or [Tom] DeLay, but just as much a Washington insider,” Berman said.

“In this year of anti-Washington rhetoric and sentiment, it will be interesting to see if Obama paints Boehner as the old gun who supported Newt and the Contract [With America].”

Still, the public’s lack of familiarity with the GOP leader could make it difficult for the administration to demonize Boehner the way President Clinton’s White House often went after Gingrich.

 A Fox News poll conducted in early April — at the conclusion of the healthcare fight in Congress, when Boehner delivered an impassioned and well-publicized speech against the reform bill — found that 55 percent of registered voters had never heard of the minority leader.

Of those who had heard of Boehner, 12 percent had a positive opinion of him, while 18 percent had a negative opinion. Fifteen percent were unsure.

This story was updated at 9:28 a.m.