Launching what the White House sees as an intense two-week campaign to force Congress to give him victories on his economic agenda, President Obama on Wednesday accused Republicans of trying to ruin Christmas for working Americans by raising their taxes. Lobbying for an extension of the year-old temporary cut in the payroll tax, he implored a cheering crowd in Scranton, Pa., “Send your senators a message. Tell them, ‘Don’t be a Grinch.’ Don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays.”
Turning to another item he wants from Congress, he added, “Make sure to renew unemployment insurance during the holidays. Stop saying no to steps that would make our economy stronger. Put our country before party.”
Obama said that extending the payroll-tax cut could mean $1,500 a year for middle-class families, calling that “a big deal.” He said he is ready to forgive Republicans for once opposing the measure. “I’m already filled with the Christmas spirit.... I want to give them another chance. I want to give them a chance to redeem themselves.”
In pledging to “keep fighting” for lower taxes, he sought to align himself with average people in Scranton. “We've taken some punches the last few years,” Obama said. “One thing I know about people in Scranton, people in Pennsylvania, and all across America, know we are tougher than tough times. We get up, we move forward. We don't give up. We get back up.”
In going to Scranton and the Wyoming Valley, Obama chose a politically pivotal part of an electorally essential state to make the case that the next two weeks are crucial to both the economy and his presidency. Obama aides believe that Scranton was the perfect place to kick off what they promise will be a short but intense campaign to pressure Congress to act before Christmas on a White House wish list that includes extension of the cut in the payroll tax, extension of long-term unemployment compensation, and passage of some transportation projects.
But nothing has ever come easy for Obama in Scranton. The town may love Vice President Joe Biden, its hometown boy. And it certainly loved Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose father was from Scranton. In 2008, Scranton gave its votes but not its heart to Obama--particularly after he seemed to be referring to residents there when he groused that folks in small-town Pennsylvania were “bitter.” He was crushed in the Democratic primary in Lackawanna County, with 74 percent of the vote going to Clinton. He rebounded in the general election, winning the county 62 percent to 36 percent over Republican John McCain.
“Like all relationships, it’s complex,” said Scranton native Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, when asked about Obama’s standing with Scranton voters. “He may not have had the same love that he might have seen in places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh or the urban centers of the state. But he clearly was able to bring these voters with him in 2008.”
But the Scranton that welcomed Obama on Wednesday is “a dramatically different place” than the one Obama visited in 2008. Then, Pennsylvania had a Democratic governor and Lackawanna County had two Democratic members of Congress. Today, the governor is a conservative Republican and the county has two Republicans in Congress. And one of the president’s strongest backers in Pennsylvania, Scranton’s own Sen. Robert Casey, did not accompany Obama to his hometown.
In his remarks, the president went out of his way to praise the absent senator, declaring, "I love Senator Casey!" Much was being made of Casey’s absence. But Larry Smar, his deputy chief of staff, said that the senator is in Washington because of votes on the defense authorization bill. He called the criticism “a silly political attack from the same political operatives who would attack him for missing defense votes if he went.”
Pennsylvania remains a state whose 20 electoral votes are considered essential to any hopes for an Obama victory in 2012. And the statewide numbers, while not bleak for Obama, reflect the national unease over the president’s stewardship of the economy. In the most recent poll taken by Quinnipiac University in late September, Pennsylvanians disapproved of the job Obama is doing, 54 to 43 percent. And 51 percent said he did not deserve a second term, with 44 percent saying he did.
The White House insists that this trip is not political. Instead, it casts it as the launch of an intense two-week campaign to force Congress to give the president what he most wants for Christmas--the payroll-tax cut extension, the unemployment-insurance extension, and some transportation spending. It kicks off the beginning of a major push, one administration official said, assuming Congress wants to get out on schedule with less than three weeks to get things done.
The official said that the president's intent before the vote is to hit hard at “what this means to the average person” and that “this is not some parlor game in Washington.” He said Obama’s goal is to make average working-class Americans “realize that their taxes are at risk of going up a huge amount” if Congress does not act. He added, “We’re going to continue to make the case in a very aggressive way publicly.” Starting in Scranton, he said, “we are going to lay out for the American people exactly what the stakes are, that the clock is ticking.”
He said Obama will be taking more trips and doing more interviews and events to hammer home the point. “The days will dwindle ... so our explanation of what’s at stake will intensify. It is fair to say that by the middle of December you’re going to see more Americans aware.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans protested even before the president arrived in Scranton, arguing that he should spend less time on the road and more time in Washington negotiating over how to extend the payroll-tax cut. A GOP leadership aide said that Republicans “have sought--via phone, letter, and public statement--the opportunity to sit down and iron out details, as well as discuss our ideas for job creation. Unfortunately, as you know, not one meeting has ever been granted. Instead, the White House has concocted a campaign to insincerely claim Republicans are getting in the way.”
In a statement, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Republicans have “made clear all fall that we’re interested in working with the president to find common ground on his jobs plan.” He said he will “continue to seek common ground on this issue,” adding, “There’s no debate, though, about whether these extensions ought to be paid for. The president’s called for them to be paid for. Democrats here have called for them to be paid for. So if, in fact, we can find common ground on these extensions, I think you can take to the bank the fact that they will be paid for.”
Borick said that Obama may find a receptive audience to his arguments in Scranton. “It is a place where economics always are front and center. I do think his message can resonate there. This is not a wealthy area. It is a place where you can get some buy-in about a fiscal policy that protects the middle class and asks for more from the high-end earners.”
But, he added, the voters in Scranton “are going to want to see evidence that it can work for them.” He called Scranton a very politically pragmatic place. “It is really about as nonideological as you’re ever going to find. They want things to work. And they are not caught up in the ideological battles. They want to see things that are fair and want to see things that work. He has to show he has a fair proposal that will result in better lives for them.”
If he can do that, Obama may win back the votes of the Wyoming Valley--even if he can’t win their hearts the way Clinton or Biden did.