MANCHESTER, N.H.— Confronting Republicans, President Barack Obama on Tuesday dashed into the home of the nation’s first presidential primary, urging GOP lawmakers to support a payroll tax cut next week and stand by their own pledges not to increase taxes.
Obama sought to steal the spotlight from Republican presidential contenders who have blanketed the political battleground with anti-Obama messages while tending to a state expected to be heavily contested in the next year’s general election.
“The next time you hear one of these folks from the other side … talking about raising your taxes, you just remind them that ever since I’ve got into office, I’ve lowered your taxes, haven’t raised them,” Obama said at a high school gymnasium. “That’s worth reminding them.”
The president said “in the spirit of Thanksgiving,” Democrats in Congress would offer Republicans another chance next week to consider a plan to extend and expand the cut in payroll taxes that fund Social Security. Obama said it would save the typical middle class family about $1,000 in taxes.
“Don’t be a Grinch. Don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays,” Obama said.
Even as he sought to draw a bright line with Republicans over taxes, Obama was reminded about the unhappiness among some in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As he began to speak, Obama was briefly interrupted by protesters who screamed, “Mic check!” and then chanted, “Mr. President — over 4,000 protesters, over 4,000 protesters, have been arrested.”
Obama paused to let the demonstrators speak. “No, no, no. That’s OK,” Obama said. The crowd then sought to drown out the protesters with chants of “Obama!”
Working the crowd after the speech, Obama was handed a note from the protesters that amounted to a script of their chant. Captured in photographs, the note said peaceful demonstrators had been arrested while “banksters” destroy the economy “with impunity.”
The note urges Obama to stop the assault on protesters’ First Amendment rights and says his “silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable.”
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was airing his first TV ads in the Granite State, a spot sharply critical of Obama’s economic record. The former Massachusetts governor also ran ads in New Hampshire newspapers that say to Obama, “I will be blunt. Your policies have failed.”
Traveling to New Hampshire, White House spokesman Jay Carney swiped at the ad, which plays audio of Obama from the 2008 presidential campaign declaring “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
Obama, however, was quoting the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a distinction the ad doesn’t make and that alters its meaning. In fact, the Romney campaign statement announcing the ad includes Obama’s full quote: “Sen. McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
“Seriously? I mean, an ad in which they deliberately distort what the president said?” Carney said. “It’s a rather remarkable way to start. And an unfortunate way to start.”
New Hampshire, with only 4 electoral votes, has been a key target in recent presidential elections. Republican George W. Bush carried the state in 2000, but Democrats took it back in 2004. Obama lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary in a surprise to Hillary Rodham Clinton but bounced back to win the state in the general election.
Billy Shaheen, a longtime Democratic operative in New Hampshire and the husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, said Republicans’ huge gains in the state during the 2010 midterm elections served as a wake-up call for the state’s Democrats.
“After the 2010 election, New Hampshire got a taste of what the tea party can do, and it’s not happy. I think an undercurrent exists that’s ready to be tapped for the 2012 election,” he said. “We’re not proud of what has been going on in the state capitol, and we’re getting ready. We let our guard down in 2010, but we’ve come too far to go back.”
The president’s trip followed the collapse of a special congressional deficit-reduction supercommittee, which failed to reach a deal on $1.2 trillion in cuts. Democrats had hoped to tuck the payroll tax extension, as well as a renewal of unemployment benefits, into the supercommittee agreement.
With that option seemingly off the table, the White House plans to make a full-court press for a separate measure to extend the payroll tax cut before it expires at the end of the year — and set up Republicans to be the scapegoat if the measure doesn’t pass.
The White House says a middle-class family making $50,000 a year would see its taxes rise by $1,000 if the payroll tax cuts are not extended.
Republicans aren’t wholly opposed to the extension. In fact, party members sent the White House a letter in September stating that extension of the payroll tax cut is one element of Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill where the two sides may be able to find common ground.
Some Republicans worry that the extension would undermine the solvency of Social Security. Others oppose any effort to pay for the renewal by taxing the wealthy.
The issue could appeal to independent voters in low-tax New Hampshire. With Republican candidates led by Romney assailing Obama’s record at every turn, the president and his surrogates, including Vice President Joe Biden, are trying to rebut their economic message.
Recent polls have indicated that, if an election between Obama and Romney were held today, Obama would lose by roughly 10 percentage points.
It was Obama’s first visit to New Hampshire in nearly two years and the president harkened back to a campaign event at Manchester High School nearly four years to the day, when an early snow storm forced him to leave early.
“I wanted to point out,” Obama said, “we are keeping our promise. We are back.”