After taking his lumps during the summer’s bitter debt-ceiling debacle, Obama switched tactics, eschewing an “inside game” based on direct negotiations with Capitol Hill Republicans for an “outside game” focused on harnessing public opinion. It culminated two weeks ago when House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) gave in under enormous public pressure and agreed to an Obama-backed, two-month extension of the payroll tax cut.
Administration aides say that Obama emerged from the showdown with public consensus that he, not Congress, is more willing to rise above Washington’s partisan gridlock. And as he enters his reelection campaign year, Obama intends to “double down” on his outside strategy, pressing the message that he is fighting for the middle class against a Congress beholden to special interests, aides said.
Obama’s decision to exploit his bitter divisions with Capitol Hill Republicans signals a shift from his 2008 campaign promise to soften the tone of debate in Washington and bridge the partisan divide, something the president has recently conceded could take longer than two terms in office. It also means his legislative agenda could grind to a near halt in this election year. White House aides said that Obama is willing to work with Congress if lawmakers refrain from “partisan attacks” but that after the February fight to extend the payroll tax holiday through the end of the year, the president will not engage in any more high-stakes showdowns to advance his policies before the election.
Obama will resume his nationwide jobs tour with an appearance in Cleveland on Wednesday, and his State of the Union address Jan. 24 will echo the populist themes the president laid out in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in early December.
“In terms of the president’s relationship with Congress in 2012 . . . the president is no longer tied to Washington,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said in Hawaii, where Obama is spending a 10-day vacation that ends Monday.
White House aides say that if Obama is not forced to engage Congress in regular partisan brinkmanship — “putting out fires,” as Earnest described it — the president will have a “larger playing field” to articulate a broader agenda for the nation as he heads into the election. The administration views the looming February fight over the payroll tax cut as the final “must-do” legislative initiative and the last potential “cliff-hanger” vote on Obama’s domestic jobs agenda.
After that, if Obama’s “playing field includes working with Congress, all the better,” Earnest said. “But I think my point is that that’s no longer a requirement.”