Obama's fiscal cliff strategy is tricky balance

Friday, December 7, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 49

WASHINGTON (AP) — Playing both sides, President Barack Obama is trying to balance his public pressure campaign on Republicans over the looming "fiscal cliff" with his private negotiations with GOP leaders.

The White House is loath to abandon the two-pronged strategy even as the Dec. 31 deadline nears. Obama's advisers see the carrot-and-stick approach as key to winning concessions from Republicans on taxes and reaching a deal to avert the series of year-end tax hikes and spending cuts.

But Obama's campaign to rally public support for his fiscal cliff positions has irked some Republicans. And continuing to publicly lambaste GOP lawmakers as obstructionists for not giving in to White House demands that tax rates rise on the top 2 percent of income earners could undercut trust between Obama and Republicans in their private talks.

For now, the White House says it plans to continue on both tracks. Asked whether the president would be more focused on his public efforts or private talks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said "both."

"We will continue to engage with leaders on Capitol Hill, we will continue to engage with a broader coalition of people who have a stake in this, and that includes ordinary Americans out in the country," Carney said.

But Republicans have made clear that they see the president's public campaign as a hindrance to private negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that the president would "rather campaign than cooperate." And a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the White House appears to be placing "a higher premium on politics than the American jobs that are at stake."

Perhaps with that in mind, there are indications that the White House is scaling back its public campaign as negotiations enter a more serious phase. Unless Congress acts, taxes will increase on all income earners on Jan. 1, and a slew of spending cuts will begin to take effect the following day.

After holding a flurry of fiscal cliff-focused events in recent weeks — from a Twitter town hall to a photo opportunity in a Virginia family's basement apartment — the president is expected to spend much of this week out of the spotlight.

In the one public appearance he did make this week — a campaign-style rally at an auto plant in Michigan — the president held back his criticism of Republicans. Instead, he put the onus for reaching a fiscal cliff deal on Congress as a whole.

"We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody's income," Obama said, referring to his position that tax rates be increased on individual incomes over $200,000 and on family incomes over $250,000.

The president's restrained rhetoric was particularly notable given that his remarks came a day after he met privately at the White House with Boehner, their first one-on-one session in 18 months.

Both sides have agreed to not publicly discuss any details of that meeting, and White House officials wouldn't say whether Obama's dialed-back approach reflected any progress in the talks.

Even if Obama continues to retreat from his public cliff campaigning, he'll have plenty of surrogates to pick up the slack.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released new online and radio advertisements Wednesday targeting 21 House Republicans and urging voters in their districts to press them to not "hold the middle class hostage to get more tax cuts for millionaires."

And Obama's re-election campaign, which is still up and running more than a month after Election Day, emailed supporters asking them to call Republican lawmakers. In the email, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter wrote, "Let's get one thing straight: If your taxes go up, Republicans will have made a conscious choice to let that happen."

Obama advisers came out of Election Day banking on being able to translate the enthusiasm — and massive database — it used to build support for candidate Obama to build support for a re-elected Obama's policies. It's something the president's aides acknowledge they failed to do during his first term, including during negotiations on the health care overhaul.

There is some evidence to support the Obama team's assertion that its public campaign is working. An Associated Press-GfK poll suggested that 48 percent of Americans want tax cuts to expire in January on earnings over $250,000 but continue for lower incomes. An additional 32 percent said the tax cuts should continue for everybody, which has been the view of Republican lawmakers who say raising taxes on the wealthy would squelch their ability to create jobs.

Some Republican-leaning groups also have sought to build public support for GOP efforts to continue tax cuts for all income earners. Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-backed conservative group, announced a $500,000 television advertising buy last week. The TV spots assert that the president's solution to reducing the deficit is "a huge tax increase" and urge the public to call the president and voice opposition to his proposals.