TAMPA, Fla. — With a no-nonsense tone, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan embraced his role as Barack Obama's top agitator — and Mitt Romney's chief defender
Stubbornly high unemployment? Obama's fault. Dispirited Americans? Obama's fault. Even the closed General Motors plant in his beloved hometown of Janesville, Wis. You can guess whose fault that is, too, even though the plant ceased production before Obama took office.
"Without a change in leadership, why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?" Ryan said.
The Wisconsin congressman stepped onto the national stage Wednesday night with a Midwesterner's polite but pointed outrage for a nation whose economy has not recovered quickly enough from the Great Recession. Citing statistics, Ryan comfortably slid into the traditional role of the No. 2 on a presidential ticket.
From the outset of the speech — his highest stakes appearance yet in his political career — he took Obama to task. He gave the Republican faithful and Obama skeptics plenty of reminders that some of Obama's promises of 2008 have come up short.
"It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new," Ryan said. "Now all that's left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday's wind."
He offered praise of Romney and a brief introduction to his story growing up in Wisconsin. But the thrust of Ryan's pitch is that Obama has misled the country and it is time to replace him with Romney.
"President Obama is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record, and then calls that the record," Ryan said. "But we are four years into this presidency. The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it — not the economy as he envisions it — but this economy as we are living it."
Ryan worked with his speechwriting team — some longtime aides, others new additions from Romney's Boston headquarter — to find a balance that appealed to voters from in-play states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Economic hardships have hit close to home there and Ryan's roots in Janesville were an effort to connect with working- and middle-class voters who remain skeptical of the vastly wealthy Romney.
He told the story of his hometown, Janesville, where he still lives on the block where he grew up. He worships at the Catholic parish where he was baptized, and the shuttered GM plant is a reminder of the past.
"A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: 'I believe that if our government is there to support you this plant will be here for another hundred years.' That's what he said in 2008," Ryan said. "Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that's how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."
During his 2008 campaign, Obama did visit the plant. But Ryan leaves out the fact that the plant stopped production on Dec. 23, 2008, a month before Obama took office.
Ryan pressed forward with other scathing criticisms painting Obama as a spend-crazy leader.
"With all their attack ads, the president is just throwing away money — and he's pretty experienced at that," he said.
He also doubled down on criticism of the Democrats' health care plan, which shifted money from Medicare to pay for an expansion of health care coverage. Democrats say the change doesn't negatively affect seniors' benefits and note that in the past Ryan has proposed a voucher-like system for future retirees.
"Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it," Ryan said, pointing to his 78-year-old mother, Betty, sitting in the audience. "A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom's generation, for my generation and for my kids and yours. So our opponents can consider themselves on notice."
Ryan, the top budget writer for House Republicans, stayed away from the policy details that he prefers. Instead, he spoke warmly of his new political partner, Romney.
"The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable," Ryan said. "Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best. Not only a fine businessman, he's a fine man, worthy of leading this optimistic and good-hearted country."
Ryan also used his 37-minute speech to share a bit of his biography and growing up in the Midwest.
"My dad, a small-town lawyer, was also named Paul. Until we lost him when I was 16, he was a gentle presence in my life. I like to think he'd be proud of me and my sister and brothers," he said. "You know what? I'm sure proud of him and of where I come from, Janesville, Wis."