Obama's fiscal cliff strategy is tricky balance

President’s advisers see carrot-and-stick approach as key to winning concessions

By Julie Pace
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Playing both sides, President Barack Obama is trying to balance his public pressure campaign on Republicans over the looming “fiscal cliff” with his private negotiations with GOP leaders.

The White House is loath to abandon the two-pronged strategy even as the Dec. 31 deadline nears. Obama’s advisers see the carrot-and-stick approach as key to winning concessions from Republicans on taxes and reaching a deal to avert the series of year-end tax hikes and spending cuts.

But Obama’s campaign to rally public support for his fiscal cliff positions has irked some Republicans. And continuing to publicly lambaste GOP lawmakers as obstructionists for not giving in to White House demands that tax rates rise on the top 2 percent of income earners could undercut trust between Obama and Republicans in their private talks.

For now, the White House says it plans to continue on both tracks. Asked whether the president would be more focused on his public efforts or private talks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said “both.”

But Republicans have made clear that they see the president’s public campaign as a hindrance to private negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that the president would “rather campaign than cooperate.”

Perhaps with that in mind, there are indications that the White House is scaling back its public campaign as negotiations enter a more serious phase. Unless Congress acts, taxes will increase on all income earners on Jan. 1, and a slew of spending cuts will begin to take effect the following day.

After holding a flurry of fiscal cliff-focused events in recent weeks — from a Twitter town hall to a photo opportunity in a Virginia family’s basement apartment — the president is expected to spend much of this week out of the spotlight.

In the one public appearance he did make this week — a campaign-style rally at an auto plant in Michigan — the president held back his criticism of Republicans. Instead, he put the onus for reaching a fiscal cliff deal on Congress as a whole.

“We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income,” Obama said, referring to his position that tax rates be increased on individual incomes over $200,000 and on family incomes over $250,000.

The president’s restrained rhetoric was particularly notable given that his remarks came a day after he met privately at the White House with Boehner, their first one-on-one session in 18 months.

Both sides have agreed to not publicly discuss any details of that meeting, and White House officials wouldn’t say whether Obama’s dialed-back approach reflected any progress in the talks.