In his remarks last night, President Obama had this to say: “When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure he’s just being America’s accountant . . . this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill—but wasn’t paid for. So it’s not on the level.”

What a nice ending to an ugly week.

Put out of your mind the fact that Bush’s tax cuts, especially the ones in 2003, led to economic growth that in 2007 helped to trim the deficit to barely more than one percent of GDP. Set aside the fact that the prescription drug plan Ryan supported was less than half the cost of what Democrats were proposing. Forget too that the free-market reforms helped the new plan beat its cost projections by around 40 percent. The point is that Obama has decided to get down and dirty this week rather than to engage the fiscal debate in a serious and honest fashion. Even Mark Halperin of Time magazine, a fine, fair, but not terribly unsympathetic-to-Obama reporter, agreed that Obama crossed a line in his speech this week by saying, in Halperin’s words, “They’re not American in their proposal.”

It isn’t enough to say Obama is doing what others in the past have done, although Obama seems to do it more often and with more relish. He predicated his 2008 campaign on putting an end to what he called “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” It is Obama who, upon accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party, declared that “one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism.” And it was Obama who promised, on the night of his election, “I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”

It was also President Obama who cautioned earlier this year, in his remarks after the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, “[A]t a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” And it was Obama who told Republicans at a retreat in January 2010, “[W]e’re not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterize whatever proposals are put out there as, ‘Well, you know, that’s—the other party’s being irresponsible. The other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens. That the other party is doing X, Y, Z.’ ”

But now that he finds himself intellectually outmatched by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in a precarious situation when it comes to his reelection, Obama is dropping his past civility sermons down the memory hole. Decency and respect for others has suddenly become passé. Talking about our disagreements without being disagreeable has been overtaken by events. Not impugning the character of the opposition is fine as long as it’s convenient, but it’s to be ignored whenever necessary. Challenging people’s character, their motivations, and their patriotism is back in fashion. And so, in Barack Obama’s world, the Republican vision for America consists of crumbling roads, collapsing bridges, young people unable to go to college, grandparents unable to afford nursing home care, and—this one is particularly classy—autistic and Down’s Syndrome children will have to fend for themselves.

Incompetence in a president is not a character defect, but acting so crudely and cynically is.