Obama, House GOP plan rival public campaigns on ‘fiscal cliff’

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

President Barack Obama is ramping up efforts to win over Americans—and pressure Congress—on the looming "fiscal cliff," with events at the White House and on the road to argue for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts chiefly benefiting the rich.

The response from his top Republican foes? On Tuesday morning, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell portrayed the president's outreach effort as an unserious distraction from negotiations with Congress. But minutes after McConnell's sharp-tongued criticism, Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office announced that his members would be countering the president's road show with one of their own.

Obama was meeting on Tuesday behind closed doors with 15 small-business owners from the retail, construction and health care information technology sector. At the White House on Wednesday, the president planned to showcase Americans who would be affected if no deal can be reached to extend middle-class tax cuts. On Friday, Obama planned to travel to the Philadelphia suburb of Hatfield to make a speech at the Rodon Group manufacturing facility. Rodon is an American maker of K'NEX brands, which include Tinkertoy, K'NEX and Angry Bird Building Sets.

In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell cast the White House efforts as little more than a public relations gambit.

"Rather than sitting down with lawmakers of both parties and working out an agreement, he's back out on the campaign trail, presumably with the same old talking points we're all familiar with," McConnell said. "Look: We already know the president is a very good campaigner. What we don't know is whether he has the leadership qualities necessary to lead his party to a bipartisan agreement on a big issue like this."

But 26 minutes after a transcript of McConnell's remarks landed in reporters' inboxes, Boehner's office made it clear that the House GOP would also be taking its sales pitch on the road.

Republican lawmakers planned to hold events with small businesses around the country warning that job creation will slow if taxes are hiked on small businesses, aides said.

Republicans have warned that Obama's push to let tax cuts expire on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families will hit some small businesses, a sector they often credit with fueling job growth. The president characterizes the tax increase—a centerpiece of his successful re-election campaign—as asking wealthier Americans to pay more in order to preserve popular government programs that might otherwise face steep cuts.

"Republicans understand that we must avert the fiscal cliff and have laid out a framework to do so that is consistent with the 'balanced' approach the president says he wants," Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck said. Buck accused some Democrats of ruling out "sensible spending cuts," notably overhauls of popular entitlement programs such as Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors, and Medicaid, a state-federal program that provides health care to low-income Americans.

The White House and congressional Republicans profess eagerness to avoid the fiscal cliff, an economically toxic blend of tax increases and dramatic spending cuts that will go into effect Jan. 1 unless a deal is reached on a far-reaching deficit-cutting plan (or an agreement is reached to push back what are Congressionally enacted deadlines that lawmakers can un-enact if the president signs on).

Obama spoke to Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over the Thanksgiving weekend, but Republicans have complained that negotiations are at an impasse. One of the major roadblocks is the fight over whether to let tax rates on higher incomes revert to Clinton-era levels. The fiscal cliff fight could shape the direction of the nation's spending for a decade—and it certainly amounts to Obama's first major test of postelection clout.