President Obama took to the bully pulpit Wednesday, launching a campaign-style blitz intended to pressure Congress to increase taxes on the rich, a shift from the hands-off negotiating style the president previously deployed with mixed results.
The president surrounded himself with average Americans at a carefully orchestrated White House event to illustrate how Congress' failure to act on taxes and spending cuts by the end of the year could end up increasing taxes on a middle-class family by as much as $2,000 next year.
"Tell members of Congress what a $2,000 tax increase would mean to you," Obama said. "Do what it takes to communicate a sense of urgency. We don't have a lot of time."
Obama also met with a dozen business leaders Wednesday in hopes of recruiting them in his fight with congressional Republicans over his plan to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 annually.
Republicans said the president's public relations blitz and his infrequent conversations with conservative lawmakers raise questions about whether he's truly interested in compromise.
"He's trying to use every weapon is his arsenal to pressure Republicans into a one-sided deal that would not touch spending or entitlements," said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. "That's where his greatest strength is. He doesn't have a lot of experience in the negotiating room."
Obama's extensive personal involvement in the push for tax cuts reflects a very different strategy for dealing with Congress than he employed last year when Republicans were resisting his efforts to raise the government's borrowing capacity. The president allowed congressional Democrats to lead those negotiations, which produced the government's current dilemma: the possibility of steep tax increases and spending cuts that would kick in automatically on Jan. 1 unless a compromise can be reached on a deficit-reduction package.
Virtually every modern president has used the bully pulpit to exert public pressure on Congress, but analysts question whether the public is ready to rally behind Obama.
"He's still in campaign mode," said Alan Schroeder, a presidential communication expert at Northeastern University. "I'm not sure you're going to get tangible progress. It's a tough sale because it's an abstraction until people's taxes go up."
Indeed, Obama's current push for tax cuts is being built around the same kind of grassroots strategy he employed in his campaigns in both 2008 and this year. Banking that voters will devote similar energy to the fiscal fight, Obama called on them to use social media to pressure Congress and created the Twitter hashtag #My2K as a reminder of the tax cuts.
Republicans charged that Obama's approach has only hardened their opposition to the Democratic agenda. And the conservative Heritage Foundation retaliated on Twitter by paying to advertise responses to Obama's hashtag, which began trending immediately after the president's speech Wednesday.
"Somebody needs to tell Mr. Obama that the election is over," a senior congressional Republican aide said. "We're being serious. What he's doing seems like a stunt."
Obama, who was criticized by fellow Democrats for not being tough enough with Republicans during his first term, will continue his bully-pulpit efforts Friday with a visit to a manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania.
"Look, the president just won re-election," said Democratic strategist Christopher Hahn. "I wish he had done this more often during his first term. He holds all the cards right now."