Obama photo-ops draw criticism

President Obama has taken his negotiating powers to the kitchen table to talk to the middle class in the latest round of debt talks with Republicans.

One photo-op at a time, the White House has sought to drive home a message that middle class families will see their taxes go up if Congress doesn’t pass an extension of current tax rates.

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It’s led to criticism from Republicans that the president should be meeting with them instead of taking time for campaign-style visits to suburban homes. But the strategy of having Obama and Vice President Biden appear before every-day backdrops works perfectly for a White House intent on convincing the middle class that GOP opposition to higher tax rates on the rich is putting their own economic well-being at risk.

“It’s good image making on a grand scale,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communication and advertising. “What you’re doing is showing that the president cares and is in touch with the middle class and the Republicans aren’t.

“There’s no downside, it doesn’t do any harm, and it reinforces the image that the Obama that the president cares about and is in touch with every day Americans,” Berkovitz continued. “Since the Republicans have no successful PR machine revved up, it translates to having the upper hand.”

Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Republicans have sought to fight back, accusing the White House of playing out the clock and sending the country over the so-called fiscal cliff.

Boehner on Friday accused Obama of having “wasted another week” by not communicating with House Republicans and not offering flexibility on entitlement reform and spending. He accused the White House of making “no progress” in the negotiations.

Asked about the administration’s recent photo-ops, Boehner’s spokesman Brendan Buck replied, “Every day spent campaigning rather than offering a solution is a day wasted and a day closer to the economy going over the cliff.”

Yet the complaints from Boehner’s spokesman and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) who repeatedly has criticized the president for campaigning on the tax issue, suggest the vulnerability Republicans feel when confronted with Obama’s use of the bully pulpit.


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On Thursday, for example, Obama traveled to Northern Virginia, a 15-minute drive from the White House, to visit the ground-floor apartment of a high school English teacher.

For about 30 minutes, Obama sat at a round kitchen table with the teacher, her husband who works at a local car dealership and their parents to discuss how they might be affected by the looming crisis.

“They have dreams and ambitions, they have a beautiful six-year-old son Noah,” Obama told reporters inside the apartment. “They’re keeping it together, they’re working hard, they’re meeting their responsibilities. For them to be burdened unnecessarily because Democrats and Republicans aren’t coming together to solve those problems gives you a sense of the costs on personal terms.”

Obama also used the moment, sitting around the table, to reiterate that he would not sign “any package that somehow prevents…the top two percent from going up.”

On Friday, Biden, ever the retail politician, had a similar moment over at a lunch in a Virginia restaurant with seven individuals who could be affected by the fiscal crisis.

“This is no time to add any additional burden for middle class people,” Biden said, adding that it would take “15 minutes” for legislation to get done if Boehner agreed to let taxes rise for the wealthiest individuals. Republicans, he said, shouldn’t “hold hostage the relief for the middle class.”

While the events have mostly been photo ops meant to drive home the White House’s message, Biden actually made news Friday during his trip to Virginia by showing some new flexibility on taxes.

“We are prepared and the president has made it clear…there are two irreducible minimum requirements for us,” he said. “The top brackets have to go up – this is not a negotiable issue; theoretically we can negotiate how far up. But we think it should go—the top rate should go to 39.6 percent.”

The White House has intensified their public outreach, asking individuals who might be affected to e-mail their lawmakers, write on their Facebook walls and even take to Twitter to discuss how a tax increase would impact their lives. Obama will continue that effort on Monday when he heads to Michigan.

A senior administration official said it's part of an "effort to highlight the real world consequences but also engage middle class Americans across the country in an effort to prevent the tax increases on the middle class from taking effect."

While visiting a toy factory last week, Obama acknowledged that people need to make their voices heard for Congress to act.

“I want the American people to urge Congress, soon,” Obama said. “The key there is that the American people have to be involved. We all know you can’t take anything for granted when it comes to Washington.”