By Mike Lillis - 08/18/11 09:15 AM EDT
Rolling through the heartland this week, President Obama traded his jet for a bus, his tie for rolled-up shirt sleeves — and his criticism of Republicans for attacks on all of Congress.
No longer blasting Republicans for causing gridlock by refusing to compromise, the president used his town-hall tour through the Midwest to blame “Congress” for the partisan standoff that has all but defined Washington politics this year.
On the tour’s first stop in Cannon Falls, Minn., on Monday, Obama blasted “Congress” more than a dozen times for allowing the debt-ceiling debate to drag on and for failing to act on pending legislation to improve the economy and create jobs. By contrast, he made specific reference to Republicans only twice during the 62-minute question-and-answer session — a disparity that followed his messaging through other Q&As in Iowa and Illinois.
By highlighting the face-off between the two branches of government — White House versus Congress — rather than the distinctions between the two parties — Democrats and Republicans — Obama portrayed himself as the adult trying to manage an unruly and juvenile gang on Capitol Hill.
Yet the strategy not only suggests that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the year's legislative stalemate, it also de-emphasizes the differences between the parties' policy priorities.
That reflects a dramatic change in rhetoric and tactics by Obama, who for most of the year has been more than eager to attack Republicans directly throughout the bitter budget fights that have dominated politics.
At a town-hall gathering in California in April, for instance, Obama hammered Republicans over their new budget plan — sponsored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) — that slashed federal spending and privatized Medicare.
“The Republican budget that was put forward I would say is fairly radical — I wouldn’t call it particularly courageous,” Obama said. “What he [Ryan] and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way."
He was also quick to carve clear distinctions between the policies each party is pushing.
“There’s a fundamental difference,” he said, “between how the Republicans and I think about Medicare and Medicaid and our healthcare system.”
Obama sounded a different note this week on his heartland tour. In Cannon Falls, for instance, the president rattled off a number of specific policy ideas – most of them Democratic – that have stalled in Congress. But he never mentioned Republicans as being the ones holding them up.
“There’s a bill sitting in Congress right now that would set up an infrastructure bank to get that moving, attracting private sector dollars, not just public dollars,” Obama said in reference to a proposal championed by House Democrats but opposed by Republicans. “Congress needs to move.”
New infrastructure investments? “Congress right now could start putting folks to work rebuilding America,” Obama argued.
Patent reform? “Congress could make that decision to make it happen,” he declared.
An extension of the payroll-tax holiday? “Congress can do that right now,” the president prodded.
Obama uttered the word “Republican” only once in Cannon Falls, noting that the individual health insurance mandate — the most controversial provision of the Democrats' healthcare reform law — “used to be a Republican idea.”
In responding to a question about Social Security, Obama also went after Democrats for their near blanket opposition to entitlement cuts.
“Democrats aren’t always as flexible as we need to be,” Obama said. He added he is sometimes “frustrated” when he hears people complain that changes can’t be made to government programs.
Such attacks, though, were rare on this week's tour. Much more often, the president seemed to go out of his way to avoid confronting Republicans head-on, instead referring to his GOP critics in cryptic terms, like “some folks in Congress” or “a faction in Congress.”
"The only thing that is holding us back is our politics," Obama said Tuesday during a stop in Poesta, Iowa. "The only thing that’s preventing us from passing the bills I just mentioned is the refusal of a faction in Congress to put country ahead of party.
"And that has to stop. Our economy cannot afford it."