DES MOINES, Iowa | In his run for a second term, President Barack Obama had an opponent before he had an opponent: House Republicans. They shellacked him in the midterm elections, blocked much of his legislative agenda and pushed economic views that are wildly different from his.
Mitt Romney put a campaign face on all that for Obama: Paul Ryan.
Now Obama is attacking both the “do-nothing Congress” and Romney at once, two forces united as a target on the Republican presidential ticket. Going after votes in Iowa on Monday, Obama called Ryan the “ideological leader” of House Republicans and singled him out as “one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way” of a bill to help farmers in a time of disastrous drought.
“I’ve gotten to know Congressman Ryan. He’s a good man. He’s a family man. He’s a very articulate spokesperson for Governor Romney’s vision,” Obama said in Boone on the first of a three-day bus tour through Iowa. “The problem is it’s the wrong vision for America. It’s a vision that I fundamentally disagree with.”
Obama also has something with Ryan that he does not with the presumptive Republican nominee — a relationship of sorts. Obama has laughed with Ryan, sparred with him and attacked his ideas right in front of him. Even their favorite football teams, Obama’s Chicago Bears and Ryan’s Green Bay Packers, are rivals.
“I know him,” Obama told supporters over the weekend. “I welcome him to the race.”
He meant that politically, not just politely, as both sides adjust to what Ryan means at Romney’s side.
Romney is benefiting from the energy, campaign buzz and ideas that come with Ryan, the 42-year-old rising political star from Wisconsin. Yet Romney also aligned himself with Congress, whose public approval of its performance was a lowly 22 percent in an AP-GfK poll earlier this summer, compared with nearly 50 percent for Obama.
Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee. His name is ideologically synonymous in Washington with controversial plans for cutting spending.
Long before Romney announced Ryan as his running mate Saturday, Obama himself sought to link the two men. The president sees Ryan as the budgetary voice of a “prescription for decline” in America in which government policies help the rich at the expense of everyone else.
When Obama started going after Romney more directly in the spring, he specifically cited Romney’s support for Ryan’s budget-slashing blueprint, one that would overhaul Medicare and cut taxes and the deficit. Obama called it “thinly veiled social Darwinism” that would gut opportunity and upward mobility.
At least Ryan was not in the audience that time.
In a blistering speech in April 2011, Obama unveiled a plan for cutting the nation’s debt in the long term, seen as a counterpunch to a plan from Ryan. Referring to the Ryan plan, Obama said it would “end Medicare as we know it,” a message his campaign will now blast every day.
Ryan said at the time he was excited to get invited to the speech at George Washington University. That changed when he heard Obama speak. “What we got was a speech that was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate to addressing our country’s pressing fiscal challenges,” he said.
To audiences, Obama and Ryan can both operate in a big-message world, but they are both comfortable in the weeds of policies. Even with each other.
When Obama spoke to House Republicans at their own conference in January 2010, he commended Ryan for having put forward “a serious proposal.” Obama made clear it had ideas he agreed with and plenty of others “we should have a healthy debate about because I don’t agree with them.”
The next month, at a health care summit, Obama and Ryan got into a wonky exchange about how to shrink costs to the taxpayer. When Ryan called Obama’s vision a “government takeover of health care,” Obama responded at length, and the two sounded like they could have debated the points all day.
“There are some strong disagreements on the numbers here, Paul,” Obama said, “but I don’t want to get too bogged down.”
Obama has found himself at constant odds with Ryan and other House Republicans, and tried to make it a campaign approach. “I would love nothing more than to see Congress act so aggressively that I can’t campaign against them as a do-nothing Congress,” he said in October while pitching his jobs plan.
That sounded a lot like his comments in Iowa on Monday, when he went after Ryan by name, which was his way of going after Romney.
And, as Obama said, he knows Ryan.
During that meeting of House Republicans in 2010, Ryan graciously thanked Obama for showing up to what was clearly a tough audience.
“Good to see you,” Obama told Ryan. “Is this your crew right here, by the way?”
“It is,” Ryan said. “This is my daughter, Liza, my sons, Charlie and Sam, and this is my wife, Janna.”
When the president then said a personal hello to the whole Ryan family, Ryan prodded them: “Say hi, everybody.”
And everyone laughed.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller reported from Washington.