Obama Finds His Footing in the Tax Fight

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From left: Alex Wong / Getty; Jason Reed / Reuters

House minority leader John Boehner, left, and President Barack Obama

For Presidents, even small things can end up making a huge difference. Take the phrase "We should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage." Barack Obama scribbled that line onto a speech draft just a few days before traveling to Cleveland this month to speak out about Republican plans to oppose an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone but the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Obama believed the hostage metaphor, used previously by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, had legs. In the days that followed the Cleveland speech, he and his staff made full use of the largest megaphone in politics, repeating the words until they had become a sort of media shorthand for the tax debate. "But aren't you, kind of, holding the tax cuts for the lower-income people, the people making less than $250,000, hostage so you can give those tax cuts to the upper brackets?" CBS's Bob Schieffer asked House minority leader John Boehner the next weekend.

And then it all paid off. Instead of sticking to his party's script, Boehner, who is on track to become Speaker of the House next year, backed down. He broke from the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, and several other members of his own party leadership, to say he would support Obama's plan for a partial tax-cut extension just for middle-class households if given no other choice. A House GOP aide says Boehner's answer had a singular logic: "It eliminates the President's talking point that we are holding the middle class hostage."

Except it did no such thing. Almost immediately after Boehner's comments on CBS, several of his colleagues were forced to disagree publicly, highlighting the question of whether tax cuts for the rich should be tied to extending the middle-class reductions. On Wednesday, Boehner held an awkward press conference in which he seemed to be walking back on his comments on CBS. When asked if he would vote for a tax-cut extension that left out the wealthy, if that was his only choice, he said simply, "I want to extend all of the current tax rates."

This is the great power of the presidency, to frame the political debate and drive public opinion. For most of this summer, and much of the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, this skill has been a work in progress for Obama. More often than not, the President has found himself reacting to external events as he beat his head against Washington's legislative (and partisan) machinery, trying to enact large complex policies. Instead of being the master communicator many came to expect from the campaign, President Obama now often finds himself griping about the superficiality of news coverage, especially on cable television.

But there are still moments of breakthrough, in which he plays the same game and wins. At the White House and the Democratic National Committee, the confusion that followed Boehner's comments lifted morale, as the White House enjoyed a few hours of positive press. "We would have the argument about the middle class vs. millionaires every day of the week," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "It illuminates a value judgment."

This is not the first time Obama has jumped into a national debate about tax cuts, an issue that historically plays better for the Republican Party. During the campaign, Obama spoke often about his desire to extend tax cuts, and offer new breaks, for all but the wealthiest Americans. "The view is that you take it on, you take it on aggressively, rather than hiding under the desk," says Dan Pfeiffer, the White House director of communications.

Over the coming weeks, the issue is unlikely to die down. Leaders from both parties say tax-cut extensions are necessary before the end of the year, when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. But there is little incentive for Democrats to tackle the issue before the midterm elections, in part because a growing number of moderate Democrats in the House and the Senate are calling for an extension of the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000, at least for the next couple of years while the economy is still so fragile.

President Obama's plan to extend only middle-class tax cuts would add about $3 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, according to congressional number crunchers. Extending cuts for the top tax brackets would cost another $700 billion over a decade.

Polls show that a slight majority of Americans favor allowing the tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans. But both parties now see the issue as a possible winner in an election year. By midweek, Boehner was back on message, demanding that Democrats allow votes on an extension for all income levels. "We need to have an open and fair debate on the floor of the House," he said. "And if the Speaker is willing to do that, I'm confident that the American people will speak and we'll be able to cut spending and continue the current tax rates."

White House aides are happy to parry such demands. "Our argument is very simple: we either keep moving forward or we go back to the policies that got us into this mess," says Pfeiffer. "The tax-cut debate is the entire election fight in a microcosm."