WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama slammed likely rival Mitt Romney and the Republican Party on Tuesday for the "social Darwinism" of their policies, working to frame the coming election on his terms as the GOP appeared ready to rally behind Romney as its leader.
Obama criticized Romney by name, linking him to budget proposals from congressional Republicans in a fresh signal that the 2012 campaign is ready to move past the long GOP primary campaign and into a general-election clash over the cost and role of government.
As Obama spoke, Republicans held primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin. They were expected to add to Romney's growing lead in convention delegates and to fuel more calls from the party establishment that it's time to coalesce behind the former Massachusetts governor and focus on Obama.
In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, the president urged higher taxes on the wealthy, defended his proposals for federal spending, and called Republican plans for cuts in spending and taxes mean-spirited.
Never miss a local story.
"Clearly, we're already in the beginning months of another long, lively election year," he said.
He criticized Republican budget proposals that would cut federal spending and taxes for wealthy Americans as a move to take advantage of deficits and debt — which soared on his watch — and embrace a hard-edged view of government and its role in American life.
"It is a Trojan horse," Obama said. "Disguised as deficit-reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism." (Social Darwinism is a sociological theory positing that elite classes of the wealthy and powerful possess biological superiority and advance via inter-group conflict.)
The president said the budget passed last week by House Republicans was so harsh in its proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid that former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich last spring called it "right-wing social engineering."
"Gov. Romney," he added, "has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency. ... He even called it 'marvelous' — which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget."
Obama also suggested that Republicans have moved so far to the right that even party icon Ronald Reagan wouldn't have made it through today's GOP primaries.
He lambasted Republicans for proposing to cut taxes for the wealthy, a move he said was proven not to help the average American over the last decade.
"We were promised that these tax cuts would lead to faster job growth. They did not," he said. "The wealthy got wealthier. ... But prosperity sure didn't trickle down."
Obama said he's already cutting projected federal deficits, though he did not mention any pain that would be caused by his proposed budgets. Nor did he mention that they would continue to run up annual deficits and add to the national debt.
He defended his proposals to increase spending on such programs as local education, job training and high-speed rail, likening them to great federal programs of the past such as the transcontinental railroad, the creation of land-grant colleges and the GI Bill that paid college costs for returning World War II veterans.
As such, he said, they deserve bipartisan support, as did the creation of the Interstate Highway system under Dwight Eisenhower, the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon and the expansion of Medicare under George W. Bush — Republican presidents all.
"What leaders in both parties have traditionally understood is that these investments aren't part of some scheme to redistribute wealth from one group to another," Obama said. "They are expressions of the fact that we are one nation. These investments benefit us all."
Republicans called Obama's remarks disingenuous and an attempt to shift blame for the deficits, the slow-recovering economy and the economic anxiety of his presidency.
"After piling on trillions of dollars in new debt in his first three years in office, the last thing President Obama is qualified to lecture on is responsible federal spending," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a brief statement.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused Obama of resorting to "distortions and partisan pot shots" instead of working with Congress.
"Instead of reaching across the aisle to enact the changes needed to restore America's prosperity, the president has resorted to distortions and partisan pot shots, and recommitted himself to policies that have made our country's debt crisis worse," Boehner said, adding that Obama's budget "failed to garner a single vote."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington