President Obama today sought to inject a dose of public pressure into the "fiscal cliff" debate, urging Americans who face an across-the-board tax hike in 34 days to lobby lawmakers by phone, email and Twitter.
"If there's one thing I've learned; when the American people speak loudly enough, lo and behold, Congress listens," Obama said from a White House auditorium.
He was flanked by middle-income earners who wrote to the administration about the importance of keeping tax rates low.
Obama branded the effort "#My2K" for social media users, reflecting White House estimates that the average family of four faces a more than $2,000 income tax increase in 2013, unless Congress extends existing rates as part of a debt- and deficit-reduction deal.
The hashtag rose to a top U.S. trend on Twitter by the conclusion of Obama's remarks. But it's unclear what impact the messaging would have on the broader debate, which hinges on whether to raise tax rates on individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and families earning more than $250,000 a year.
Republicans remain largely opposed to any tax rate increases, even though some have in recent days expressed openness to raising revenue through other means -- breaking a longstanding anti-tax pledge -- or even voting to extend lower rates for the middle class now and debating rates for upper-income earners later.
Obama today pushed for certainty on tax rates for 98 percent of Americans. "If both parties agreed we should not raise taxes on middle-class families, let's begin our work where we agree," he said, voicing optimism that a "framework" for a broader deal can be achieved in the coming weeks with hopes for a final bill by Christmas.
Notably absent from the White House's campaign on "fiscal cliff," however, is any effort to rally public support for corresponding changes in entitlement programs aimed at curbing government spending, something Republicans and leaders of Obama's fiscal commission have called essential to any debt- and deficit-reduction deal.
Administration officials will not say whether an openness to means-testing Medicare, for example, remains on the table even though Obama and his campaign had previously expressed support for asking wealthier seniors to pay higher premiums as part of a deal.
Some top Democrats have even suggested separating entitlement overhaul from the "fiscal cliff" negotiations altogether, focusing only on taxes and other smaller-bore spending reduction measures before the end of the year.
White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested Tuesday that entitlement savings already included in Obama's budget could be sufficient as part of a balanced deal to avert the "cliff," rather than agreeing to potentially more controversial structural changes such as raising the Medicare and Social Security eligibility age.
"It is the president's position that when we're talking about a broad, balanced approach to dealing with our fiscal challenges, that that includes dealing with entitlements," Carney said. "And the president's budget, as you know, includes $340 billion in savings from our entitlement health-care program. So he has demonstrated yet again his commitment to the principle that we need to include as part of our balance approach savings from entitlements."
Republicans and some Democrats, including former Clinton chief of staff and fiscal commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, insist that more sweeping changes must be considered.
"It is important that we put these drivers of the deficit on the table and include them as part of any agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff," House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor said of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner and other House Republican leaders met today on Capitol Hill with Bowles, who now leads a non-partisan advocacy group -- "Campaign to Fix the Debt" -- lobbying all sides to reach a grand bargain.
Bowles and members of his group met separately on Tuesday with senior members of Obama's economic team at the White House.
"We have a real crisis, and I think it would be insane to reach the 'fiscal cliff,' but I think that there's only a one-third probably of Congress getting something done before December 31st," Bowles said, sounding a cautionary note. "You all know what it means if we don't, if we go over the 'cliff,' I think you'll see economic growth slowed by as much as 3 to 5 percent. That's obviously enough to put us back into a recession."