WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday Republicans want to force a "radical vision" on the nation, accusing the opposition party of moving so far to the right that even one of its beloved figures, Ronald Reagan, could not win a GOP presidential primary.
In a blistering election-year critique, Obama sought to present himself to voters as the protector of the middle class and the leader of a Democratic Party that is willing to compromise in Washington. He singled out the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, for criticism and more broadly said Republicans had shifted from any reasonable debate on health care, debt reduction and the environment.
Republicans "will brook no compromise," Obama told news executives at the annual meeting of The Associated Press.
He cited a Republican presidential debate late last year when the entire field rejected the prospect of $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases as a means to lower the debt.
"Think about that. Ronald Reagan, who as I recall was not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control that for him to make a deal he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases," Obama said. "He did it multiple times. He could not get through a Republican primary today."
Republicans called Obama's remarks a partisan attempt to cover up broken pledges to cut the federal deficit in half, curb spending and make tough choices to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"The president has resorted to distortions and partisan potshots and recommitted himself to policies that have made our country's debt crisis worse," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said that after the past three years, "the last thing President Obama is qualified to lecture on is responsible federal spending."
Making his case for re-election, Obama said the nation must restore a sense of security for hard-working Americans and stand for a government willing to help those in hard times. The Democratic president blasted Republicans by name and said the choice between the parties is "unambiguously clear."
Stirring anew the themes of his State of the Union speech, Obama said the central issue for the country is deciding whether it wants to give everyone a fair chance — with government as a tool to help do that — or whether it is content to let only the wealthy succeed.
Obama used his speech to paint his Republican rivals as protectors of a trickle-down economic philosophy that does not work. He spoke on the day that GOP presidential front-runner Romney was expected to move closer to seizing his party's nomination as voters went to the polls in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Obama directly challenged Romney for embracing a $3.5 trillion budget proposal led by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that was approved by the House last week. Ryan's proposal aims to slash the federal deficit and reduce the size of government. It stands little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate, yet Obama targeted it as a symbol of the Republican vision.
Obama even poked fun at Romney's word choice. "He even called it 'marvelous,' which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget," Obama said. "It's a word you don't often hear generally."
The president said that instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress have "doubled down" and proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the "Contract With America" look like the "New Deal."
The Contract with America was the policy document that helped Republicans win the House in 1994 and propelled Newt Gingrich into the speakership. The New Deal was President Franklin Roosevelt's plan for pulling the nation out of the Great Depression.
Yet Obama also sought to buffer himself from criticism that he is a supporter of big government.
Speaking to publishers and editors, Obama said: "I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history."
Obama went into a lengthy, point-by-point critique of the Ryan budget, showing what he said would be a perilous future for senior citizens, college students, people with disabilities and many other Americans. He condemned the GOP plan as a "prescription for decline."
"It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it, a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top but grows outward from the heart of the middle class," he said.
Obama made a separate call for economic fairness encapsulated by the "Buffett Rule," arguing the wealthy shouldn't pay a smaller share of their income in federal taxes than middle-class taxpayers. He said maintaining current rates or more tax breaks for the wealthy would mean "higher deficits" or "more sacrifice from the middle class" that would force seniors to pay more for Medicare and lead to college students losing some financial aid.
Republicans have said the new tax on the wealthiest Americans would push investors into sending money overseas where it would be taxed less. The GOP also points to congressional analysts who note the new revenue would be only a small amount compared with the projected budget deficits.
Obama's focus on tax change has come as Democrats seek to bring attention to Romney's business background and wealth. Romney is a millionaire who is paying 15.4 percent in federal taxes for 2011 on income mostly derived from investments. The top rate for taxpayers with high incomes derived from wages is 35 percent.
Asked about the fate of his health care reform law, his signature legislative achievement, Obama said his administration was "not spending a whole lot of time planning for contingencies" in the event that the law is struck down.
Obama said the nation's high court has exercised "restraint" and "deference" to Congress in economic cases in the past and he expected the court "to recognize that and to abide by well-established precedents out there."