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In Fiscal Cliff PR War, Obama Seeks Help From A Public Already Leaning His Way

President Obama speaks Wednesday while meeting with citizens at the White House. Obama called on Republicans to halt an automatic tax hike for middle-class Americans.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks Wednesday while meeting with citizens at the White House. Obama called on Republicans to halt an automatic tax hike for middle-class Americans.

In Washington's latest game of chicken, President Obama is counting on voters who see things his way to give him the edge in his quest to get congressional Republicans to accept tax increases on the nation's wealthiest as part of any fiscal cliff deal.

To energize those voters, the president is ramping up a series of campaign-style events meant to educate the public about the stakes, as he sees them, of letting the Bush-era tax cuts for middle-class Americans expire if no agreement is reached by year's end.

It's all about raising the pressure on Republican lawmakers enough, especially those in the House, so that at least some will soften their opposition to tax increases for families earning more than $250,000. Whether the president's tactic will work remains to be seen.

On Wednesday, Obama added a twist to the White House campaign for public support. He urged voters to use social media to express themselves to members of Congress.

At a White House event with a group of everyday Americans serving as a backdrop, Obama even supplied supporters with a new Twitter hashtag for their messages: #my2k. The hashtag incorporated the president's argument that an average middle-class family would have to pay an additional $2,200 in federal income taxes if no agreement is reached.

"Call your members of Congress, write them an email, post it on their Facebook walls," Obama told his audience. "You can tweet it using the hashtag 'My2K' " Not 'Y2K [laughter].' 'My2K.' We figured that would make it a little easier to remember."

For Obama, the hashtag-slinging public relations effort was the 2012 version of a president's traditional White House bully pulpit to further his agenda. It was also an attempt to tap into the energy of the president's supporters, who gave him the opportunity of a second term.

To a significant extent, Obama would seem to have an easier PR task than congressional Republicans. According to Election Day exit polls, a majority of voters agree with him that taxes should be increased on the wealthiest Americans.

As Obama has repeated since his re-election, the issue of higher taxes on the wealthy was exhaustively debated during his campaign against Republican Mitt Romney — and the president's side won.

Because of that, even a political scientist who has become well known in the field for persuasively arguing that the power of the bully pulpit is overrated gives Obama the edge in the message war with Republicans.

"The public favors resolving the fiscal cliff problem in general and by raising tax rates on the wealthy in particular," George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University wrote in an email response to a question. "So the president does not have to persuade the public on these points. He just has to make pre-existing views more salient to members of Congress. This is an example of a president exploiting an opportunity in his environment without having to create one by changing people's minds."

Obama was clearly counting on a repeat of earlier moments of his presidency, when public pressure caused House Republicans to accept an extension of the payroll tax holiday, among other proposals aimed at helping middle-income Americans.

Obama said Wednesday:

"Some of you may remember that a year ago, during our last big fight to protect middle-class families, tens of thousands of working Americans called and tweeted and emailed their representatives, asking them to do the right thing.

"And sure enough, it worked. The same thing happened earlier this year when college students across the country stood up and demanded that Congress keep rates low on their student loans. Congress got the message loud and clear, and they made sure that interest rates on student loans did not go up."

But as of Wednesday, while some Republicans, like Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, indicated a willingness to consider Obama's proposal, most of the GOP wasn't talking about raising tax rates for the wealthy. Instead, they placed their emphasis on spending cuts.

At his own news conference Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said:

"We all know that we've had this spending crisis coming at us like a freight train, and it has to be dealt with. And in order to try to come to an agreement, Republicans are willing to put revenue on the table, but it's time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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