PARMA, Ohio — President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping argument for retaining Democrats and punishing Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, calling on voters Wednesday to reject economic policies advanced by the GOP that he said favor millionaires at the expense of struggling families.
Obama took the unusual step of describing the financial and medical struggles he, first lady Michelle Obama and their families have faced, personalizing a deeply political debate as he sought to position himself firmly on the side of middle-class families.
Obama proposed $180 billion in new construction and tax credits meant to spur investment and research. But the address, at a community college near Cleveland, also represented an intensifying campaign by Obama to discredit Republicans and craft a road map for Democrats confronting a potentially disastrous election cycle likely to cost them scores of congressional seats.
Obama singled out the House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, an architect of a Republican strategy that Obama said aims to obstruct his agenda and to restore policies from the Bush era, including tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
Democratic loyalists have waited impatiently for Obama to adopt a more aggressive, partisan tone that frames the choice facing voters in November. And although the push comes late in a tough season for Democrats, White House officials maintained that now is the moment when American families are returning to post-summer schedules and turning to political matters.
Republicans criticized the address, even though many GOP lawmakers have generally supported the economic proposals Obama advanced.
Obama's proposal for an immediate tax write-off of new equipment purchases for businesses was a centerpiece of Arizona Sen. John McCain's tax proposals during his 2008 presidential campaign. And Republican lawmakers have routinely supported extending the popular tax credit for business research and development.
Even so, experts questioned whether the inconsistency will win political points for Obama or the Democrats.
"So, Republicans are going to filibuster the R&D credit even though they supported it," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "I just think it's way below the vast majority of voters."
More evidence of a weakening economy came Wednesday just as Obama began his speech: The Federal Reserve's latest survey of economic conditions in the nation found "widespread signs of a deceleration" in late summer compared with earlier this year.
The primary aim of Obama's speech was to offer a convincing rebuttal to a line of attack coming from opponents who charge that his economic stimulus plan and other policies have failed to trigger a recovery.
Obama conceded he deserved some blame, acknowledging the policies haven't worked quickly enough. Progress, he said, has been "painfully slow." But returning Congress to Republican hands would be worse, he said.
"Do we return to the same failed policies that ran our economy into a ditch, or do we keep moving forward with policies that are slowly pulling us out?" Obama said. "Do we settle for a slow decline, or do we reach for an America with a growing economy and a thriving middle class?"
The White House chose the Cleveland area as part of a strategy to raise Boehner's profile. The president mentioned Boehner 10 times in the course of the address.
Boehner spoke last month in Cleveland, criticizing the stimulus program and other administration economic policies.
Obama mentioned Boehner's appearance there, saying: "There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decade that they were in power — the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations."
Elevating Boehner poses two potential risks for Obama. As a candidate, he promised to end the squabbling commonplace in Washington. At the same time, Obama is putting himself on a par with a Republican leader whom many Americans don't know.
White House officials believe the risk is worth it. They are eager to put a face on Republican policies. In the view of White House aides, no Republican elected official at present has any kind of national stature, leaving them swatting elusive targets.
Obama used the speech to formally roll out his latest economic proposal. Much of the proposal was disclosed in the days before the address, involving new spending on roads, bridges and runways, and tax credits meant to encourage capital investment and research.
The president would pay for the new measures by closing oil, gas and other tax loopholes costing about $300 billion. However, congressional approval would be necessary. With Congress set to work only a few more weeks before they leave to campaign, the odds of passage are slim.
Even as Obama painted Boehner in a harsh light, he sought to rekindle some of the public affection that has dissipated over 20 difficult months in office. As during the campaign, he spoke of his personal background.
"You see, Michelle and I are where we are today because even though our families didn't have much, they worked tirelessly — without complaint — so that we might have a better life," he said.