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Obama's Hardball Stance Comes From Lessons Learned

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Obama shakes hands at The Rodon Group manufacturing facility Friday in Hatfield, Pa. He made a case for action on fiscal cliff legislation and urged congress to work together for a solution.

Capitol Hill Republicans expressed incredulity Thursday at President Barack Obama’s opening bid in the fiscal cliff negotiations, but the White House is following a strategy that they have laid out publicly for some time now.

Ever since Republicans walked away three times from bipartisan debt talks in 2011, the White House has eschewed sweet-talking the GOP and dismissed suggestions from the likes of presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that Obama embark on assorted charm offensives involving cocktails and late-night White House get-togethers with lawmakers.

“I think that the reality of modern-day Washington is a little different than it was in 1801, to use a timely example,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier this week. “And so the notion that you can solve all problems over a cocktail, I think, is a little overrated.”

Instead, carrying a big stick is in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and the fiscal cliff is the biggest stick Obama will ever have — a $600 billion bucket of pain largely aimed at GOP priorities, such as tax cuts and defense spending.

And after facing criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats for the first three years of his presidency for being too quick to offer compromise in negotiations with the GOP, the White House has adopted a far harder line in the past 18 months and appears only emboldened by the extra leverage provided by Obama’s re-election.

Plus, Democratic aides said the president is keeping his distance from lawmakers until he sees some movement from staff-level talks that have been conducted largely via email and phone between the White House and House GOP leaders. That’s part of the reason why the president travelled to Pennsylvania Friday to push for tax hikes on the wealthy. Democrats feel Obama gave congressional Republicans too much face time during the 2011 debt limit debate, and it appeared to diminished his stature in the talks, they said.

The White House proposal presented Thursday by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House chief congressional liaison Rob Nabors largely reflects proposals Obama had already made and that Carney had said would be offered. It also includes new ideas such as an extension of the payroll tax cut or some other middle class tax relief and an elimination of the debt ceiling as a practical matter.

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