By KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is embracing an unlikely group of political icons as he tries to paint Mitt Romney as extreme: He's praising Republican presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
The Democratic president typically offers up GOP leaders of the past as evidence of how both parties can work together in Washington to pursue big ideas and rebuild the economy. With Election Day seven months away, Obama hopes to convince voters that he, like his Republican predecessors, is a reasonable moderate. At the same time, he's casting Romney as a candidate who would embrace too-conservative policies out of step with most Americans and with his own party in years past.
Obama invoked Reagan's name four times in a speech this week to The Associated Press annual meeting. He said the conservative hero, never accused of being a "tax-and-spend socialist," still recognized the need for tax increases as well as spending cuts to tame federal deficits. Obama's verdict: "He could not get through a Republican primary today."
Painting Romney as an ideological extremist might seem a curious strategy for Obama, given that the GOP nomination front-runner has been considered the moderate candidate in the Republican primary field and has struggled to consolidate support among conservatives in the party. But Obama's team hopes to define Romney in a negative light before the former Massachusetts governor has a chance to pivot toward the general election and emphasize his past positions that could appeal to moderates of both parties and the independent voters who can decide close races in polarized America.
Obama has cited Reagan more than 40 times in speeches and public events since 2009, according to an analysis of public statements and transcripts by the AP. But Eisenhower is Obama's favorite Republican for name-dropping — the president has referenced him more than 90 times. Lincoln is right behind, with 80 mentions in public comments covered by the transcripts.
Among Democrats, Obama has cited Bill Clinton more than 60 times and Franklin Delano Roosevelt 45 times at public events. Jimmy Carter? Four times.
Romney, taking the same stage as Obama this week, a day later, told editors and publishers that the president was wrong. Reagan, he said, "would win handily in a primary, frankly, in all the primaries," if he were running today. Romney accused Obama of "setting up a straw man to distract us from his record."
Romney and his team say the president is trying to hide the fact that he's a liberal who has promoted government programs instead of individual opportunity — the antithesis of Reagan. Obama, these Republicans contend, has failed to bridge partisan differences so he must resort to rhetoric at a time when people care more about the economy and gas prices.
On the flip side, Democrats see the drawn-out Republican primary and rise of tea party conservatives in 2010 as prevailing currents pushing Republican candidates away from the political center.
At fundraisers and in speeches, Obama often plays history professor, using Lincoln, Eisenhower and others to try to make his case.
Lincoln, Obama frequently notes, launched the transcontinental railroad and the National Academy of Sciences — efforts, he says, that mirror his own attempts to rebuild the nation's economy and know-how. Obama points to Eisenhower's role as the father of the Interstate Highway System and reminds people that Richard Nixon, hardly a darling of liberals, created the Environmental Protection Agency.
George W. Bush — a frequent target of criticism during Obama's 2008 campaign — added prescription drug coverage to Medicare, the president told the AP annual meeting. George H.W. Bush was the first president to talk about a cap-and-trade system to curb pollution emissions — an approach that's now political suicide in Republican circles.
There are other reminders. In December, Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kan., to argue that middle class families face a "make-or-break moment," echoing themes that Republican Theodore Roosevelt stressed in a 1910 speech in the same town.