In his sharpest attacks yet on Donald Trump, President Obama jumped into the presidential campaign with both feet Wednesday, telling voters in Indiana that the presumptive Republican nominee has a “crazy” plan to roll back Wall Street regulation and will hurt average Americans by cutting taxes for the wealthy.
While taking a victory lap on the economy in Elkhart, Indiana, Mr. Obama referred to Mr. Trump several times as an enemy of the middle class who must be stopped.
“The Republican nominee for president’s tax plan would give the top one-tenth of 1 percent a bigger tax cut than the 120 million American households at the bottom,” Mr. Obama told a crowd of about 2,000 at a high school. “It would explode our deficits by nearly $10 trillion. That is not fighting for the American middle class. That will not help us win. That is not going to make your lives better. That will help people like him.”
He also excoriated Mr. Trump for proposing to undo the administration’s regulations on big banks, imposed in 2010 after the Wall Street crash and the recession.
“The Republican nominee for president has already said he’d dismantle all these rules that we passed,” Mr. Obama said. “That is crazy. Have we really forgotten what happened just eight years ago? Because of their reckless behavior, you got hurt. And the notion that you would vote for anybody who would now allow them to go back to doing the same stuff that almost broke our economy’s back makes no sense. I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent. Why would you do that”
The president said anyone who votes with their wallet in November should vote for Democrats.
“If what you care about in this election is your pocketbook; if what you’re concerned about is who will look out for the interests of working people and grow the middle class, if that’s what you’re concerned about, then the debate isn’t even close,” Mr. Obama said.
In another reference to Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama warned voters, “If we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, if we fall for a bunch of ‘hokey-doke’ just because it sounds funny or the tweets are provocative, then we’re not going to build on the progress we’ve started.”
The president’s comments, coming five months before Election Day, were his most forceful effort yet to influence the campaign to choose his successor and to reshape the Republican-majority Congress that has blocked much of his agenda. Aides say the president’s speech also reflects his concern that his economic achievements are fragile and “at grave risk” in the upcoming election.
The White House had hoped by now that the president would be advocating for a Democratic presidential candidate with a name, rather than just cheering his party’s brand. But Hillary Clinton has yet to secure the Democratic nomination against rival Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, who is waging a hard-fought battle with her for California’s delegates next week.
Regardless, the president said a Democratic victory in November “will point us in the right direction” through higher wages, better benefits and “a stronger safety net.”
He also said a Democratic victory would bring “trade on our terms,” although Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and virtually all Democrats in Congress oppose the massive free trade deal that Mr. Obama has negotiated with 11 Pacific Rim nations.
Republican policy, Mr. Obama said, “would lower wages, it would eliminate worker protections, it would cut investments in things like education, it would weaken the safety net, it would kick people off health insurance, it would let China write the rules for the global economy.”
He referred to Republicans as “politicians who are claiming to care about you and working families.”
“The evidence of the last 30 years — not to mention common sense — should tell you that their answers to our challenges are no answers at all,” the president said.
While the president didn’t mention Mr. Trump by name, he is clearly stepping up his efforts to defeat the billionaire businessman. Last week, at a summit in Japan, Mr. Obama said world leaders are “rattled” by Mr. Trump’s pronouncements on foreign policy.
In Indiana, where Mr. Obama lost to Republican Mitt Romney by more than 10 percentage points in 2012, the president urged voters not to “get cynical and just vote [on] our fears.”
“We’ve got to assume the best in each other and not the worst,” he said. “It’s part of our job as a community of Americans to help folks up when they fall.”
Mr. Obama visited Elkhart, known for manufacturing low-mileage recreational vehicles, to take a victory lap on the economy, arguing that his policies helped the city lower its unemployment rate from nearly 20 percent in 2009 to less than 4 percent today. The city was the site of Mr. Obama’s first trip as president, during the recession in April 2009.
But many in Indiana say the city’s resurgence has been fueled by low gas prices that have boosted RV sales, and has nothing to do with the administration’s failed $39 million, taxpayer-funded effort to turn an RV factory into a manufacturer of electric trucks.
“Elkhart has rebounded in spite of Obama’s policies,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican. “I believe the people of Elkhart and my fellow Hoosiers have brought our economy back in spite of the burdens that higher taxes, mandates and increasing regulations from Washington, D.C., have placed on them.”
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, also a Republican, told The Indianapolis Star, “The electric car endeavor proved not to be successful at all, and I think that’s what a lot of people point to with regard to the federal government. … That did not materialize to the extent that we had hoped, or to the degree it was promoted.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said many Republicans just won’t give the president a break.
“If the economy in Elkhart had somehow gotten worse early in the president’s tenure, Republicans in Indiana would be blaming the president for the worsening economy,” he said. “And now that the economy has improved significantly, they’re not willing to give the president any credit. That may be an indication that the political debate is not entirely on the level.”
The president had no doubts that he should get credit for the city’s recovery.
“Elkhart would not have come this far if we hadn’t made a series of smart decisions — my administration and a cooperative Congress,” Mr. Obama said. “By almost every economic measure, America’s better off than when I came here. That’s the truth.”
Mr. Obama’s accusation that Mr. Trump’s tax plan would “explode” the national debt by $10 trillion overlooked that the country’s total debt has risen by nearly as much since he took office in 2009. The total debt was $10.6 trillion, and is now approaching $20 trillion.
The president also sought to frame the fall campaign by busting what he called Republican “myths” about his administration. He said the biggest myth is that the middle class has been “victimized by a big, bloated federal government run by a bunch of left-wing elitists like me” who give hard-earned tax money to “welfare cheats” and “moochers.”
He maintained that Democratic presidents have been more fiscally responsible than Republicans in recent years.
“When President Reagan or George W. Bush held this job, our deficits got bigger,” Mr. Obama said. “When Bill Clinton and I have held this job, deficits have gotten smaller.”
Deficits under Reagan rose from $144 billion to $255 billion, under Mr. Bush from $421 billion to $1.07 trillion. Under Mr. Clinton, deficits fell from $281 billion to $133 billion, thanks in part to the largest tax increase in U.S. history in 1993.
Under Mr. Obama, deficits have fallen from the largest-ever $1.65 trillion in fiscal 2010 to $327 billion last year.
The president also called for expanding Social Security benefits, after failing to give the issue much attention for the past seven years.
“It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits so today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned,” he said.
He proposed that the country pay for the additional cost by raising the cap on Social Security taxes on wealthier Americans.
“They can afford it,” he said. “I can afford it.”