President Obama, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington,… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Seeking to leverage the momentum of his reelection victory for a partisan budget battle, President Obama called on Americans to use social media to pressure Congress in his efforts to keep tax breaks for most Americans while raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%.
The president's attempt to rally public support Wednesday via Twitter, Facebook and email marks a new strategy for the Obama White House — a dramatic shift from the grinding legislative battles and political maneuvers used to pass healthcare reform in 2010.
No longer the hands-off executive, as he appeared at the time, Obama has shifted to using the bully pulpit to support his legislative agenda, especially on a pledge he said a majority of Americans had supported on election day. But it heightened the already tense negotiating atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
"If there's one thing that I've learned, when the American people speak loudly enough, lo and behold, Congress listens," Obama said Wednesday at the White House before a bank of TV cameras and a selected group of middle-class taxpayers. Obama met later in the Roosevelt Room with business executives to make the same case.
In a counter-punch, House Republicans plan to fan out to their home districts to meet small-business owners who they say would be hurt if taxes are allowed to rise on high-income earners. Studies show 3% of small businesses earn enough to be snared by the additional tax.
The Senate's top GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, suggested the administration should spend more time negotiating cuts in entitlement programs instead of hitting the hustings for higher taxes.
"Democrats just won an election," McConnell said. "Turn off the campaign and recognize the opportunity that divided government presents to actually do something to strengthen these programs and protect them for future generations."
On Friday, Obama will visit a Tinkertoy factory in suburban Philadelphia to argue that unless Congress acts, taxes will go up on virtually every American next year and the economy will suffer. The White House plans to add other campaign-style events in coming weeks.
"I'll go anywhere and I'll do whatever it takes to get this done," Obama said. "It's too important for Washington to screw this up."
High-level budget talks are scheduled to resume Thursday with a visit to Capitol Hill by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner after a week of closed-door staff conversations that produced little apparent progress.
Democrats welcomed Obama's effort to mobilize public opinion as the divided Congress struggles to strike a budget deal before Jan. 1, when a series of automatic tax hikes and sharp spending cuts are scheduled to kick in. Economists warn the one-two punch could tip the economy back into recession next year.
"It's a big contrast," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). "In the healthcare debate, the president promoted healthcare but basically left it up to a very messy congressional process to handle it. [Now] he's pushing us to act. He's all in."
Obama urged Americans to tweet members of Congress using hashtag #My2k, a reference to the $2,200 he said an average family would pay in additional taxes if Congress failed to act. He mentioned the Twitter hashtag four times, and it later appeared on a screen behind Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, at his televised afternoon briefing.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated that he had little patience for the continued focus on taxes, and that he wanted the administration to put spending cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs on the table.
"We accepted this meeting with the expectation that the White House team will bring a specific plan for real spending cuts," said a Boehner spokesman, who requested anonymity to discuss the private talks. "Because spending cuts that Washington Democrats will accept is what is missing from the 'balanced approach' that the president says he wants."
Boehner told rank-and-file Republicans that their fight to prevent tax increases on the wealthiest Americans was a "principled" position, and one they should firmly maintain.
"We're willing to put revenue on the table as long as we're not raising rates," he later told reporters.
An Obama aide said that the president had "flexibility" on tax rates and entitlement reform, but that his immediate goal was getting Congress to lock in middle-class tax cuts that have been in place for a decade, while raising those on top brackets from 35% to 39.6%. Taxes would rise on incomes beyond $250,000 for couples, or $200,000 for single tax filers.
When Obama spoke Wednesday, he was flanked by middle-class Americans who he said had written him to express their worries that Congress would fail to act, forcing a tax increase. Later, he emailed excerpts from some of those letters to millions of his campaign supporters — along with a plea to get involved.
"Will you tell us what $2,000 means to you?" the president wrote, closing with a link to his website.