WASHINGTON — Fresh off his re-election victory, President Barack Obama has started campaigning again, this time to sell the nation on his solution to avert a series of spending cuts and tax increases that could throw the economy back into a recession
There’s a new Twitter hashtag, #My2k, public appearances with handpicked supporters and a campaign-style stop Friday at a toy manufacturer in suburban Philadelphia. What there’s not a lot of: meetings with members of Congress.
Obama has returned to a familiar playbook – trying to pressure Congress through a public relations blitz – while leaving his aides to work out a compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff. It’s the same tack he took last year on issues ranging from the extension of a payroll tax cut to college loan rates.
“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, when the American people speak loudly enough, lo and behold, Congress listens,” Obama said this week.
But his strategy has prompted complaints by Republican leaders who have called for the president to outline specific proposals and take a seat at the bargaining table.
“If the president really wants to reach an agreement, he needs to be talking with the members of his own party, here in Washington, trying to broker an agreement, not out there firing up crowds and giving speeches,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “He’s the only one who can do it.”
Obama had a cordial meeting with congressional leaders – House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and McConnell – at the White House two weeks ago. Since then, he has spoken by phone to Boehner twice and Reid once.
The White House declined to release details on future meetings. Capitol Hill aides say staffers for congressional leaders and the president speak, though not daily. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner went to Capitol Hill to talk to congressional leaders.
Both sides said they are willing to compromise, but in recent weeks disagreements on income tax rates, not spending cuts, have dominated talks. Obama wants to continue the George W. Bush-era rates for annual family incomes below $250,000, while Republicans say the current rates should continue for everyone, including higher incomes.
Also, spending cuts that are the result of a bipartisan deal struck last year to raise the nation’s debt ceiling are slated to take effect Jan. 2 unless Congress acts.
At a news conference Thursday, Boehner questioned Obama’s actions after dourly announcing that “no substantive progress” had been made in talks with the administration. “The country doesn’t need a victory lap,” said Boehner, alluding to Obama’s trip on Friday. “It needs leadership.”
In recent weeks, Obama has held private meetings with labor and civic leaders, small business owners, financial services executives and corporate chiefs of Coca-Cola, Macy’s and Goldman Sachs. He has spoken publicly twice from the White House, calling on Americans to text, email, write or call their lawmakers to pressure them to cut taxes for the middle class.
On Friday, he will travel to Hatfield, Pa., to speak at the Rodon Group manufacturing facility, makers of Tinkertoy, K’NEX building sets and Angry Bird building sets.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, peppered with questions this week about why Obama is not meeting with congressional leaders, defended the tactic.
“This is a debate that absolutely should involve the American people because the American people have the most at stake,” he said. “And it’s entirely appropriate for the president to go out and present to American businesses and ordinary Americans his views on this, and to ask them to let their voices be heard here in Washington, because that’s how we get things done here in Washington.”
Obama has never been one to schmooze with Congress or lobby lawmakers personally. Critics – and even some supporters – have said that is a major reason he failed to achieve more in his first term, first with a Congress controlled by his party and later with a sharply divided one. During the campaign, he pledged to renew his efforts to work with Congress.
Republican consultant Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said that both parties are clamoring for Obama’s involvement – Democrats because he’s the leader of their party and Republicans because they know nothing will be agreed to unless he signs off – but that the president’s actions will likely ramp up slowly. “It’s sort of the beginning of the dance,” he said.
In summer 2011, when Congress debated raising the debt ceiling, Obama embarked on a similar public relations blitz. He hosted his first-ever Twitter town hall, gave a prime-time speech, held a trio of news conferences and traveled the nation. But after talks broke down between Congress and Vice President Joe Biden, Obama began meeting personally with Boehner. Those talks eventually failed, too.
“What he’s doing right now reflects the lessons he learned by failed negotiations with John Boehner,” said William Galston, a top adviser in the Clinton White House and a current scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.
Galston said Obama was stung by his personal involvement, prompting him to remark on the campaign trail that change required public pressure from outside the Beltway.
“You can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama said in September. “You can only change it from the outside.”
William Douglas contributed to this report.
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