President Obama‘s choice of Scranton, Pa., to talk taxes today isn’t just coincidence: it’s a strategic backdrop for a pre-election pitch aimed largely at white working-class voters in critical swing states.
In a speech at Scranton High School — a setting identical to one used last week in Manchester, N.H. — Obama will plug his plan to extend and expand a payroll tax cut for workers and impose a new payroll tax cut for small businesses. He’ll also likely underscore Republican opposition, which has included GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.
While today’s event is billed by the White House as official business, Obama’s campaign strategists have said their goal in states like Pennsylvania is to articulate in real, tangible terms what’s at stake for the middle class in the 2012 campaign.
If the existing payroll tax cuts are allowed to expire at the end of December, the average middle class family earning $50,000 a year would face an effective tax hike of $1,000, the White House says. In Scranton, where the median income is $34,700 according to the Census Bureau, an individual earning that amount would owe an additional $696 to the government in 2012.
“Take that away…and you’re going to cause the economy to shrink — to grow less, and you’re going to do a lot of harm to 160 million working Americans,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday of the payroll tax cut.
Stealing some of Obama’s thunder, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that a majority of Republicans would support extending the so-called payroll tax holiday when the measure comes up for a vote as early as this week. But they disagree with Obama on how to pay for the plan, which would cost the government an estimated $110 billion.
Meanwhile, Romney hasn’t clarified explicitly whether or not he supports extending the payroll tax cuts, but he has signaled that such a move would not help create jobs or improve the economy.
“If you give a temporary change to the payroll tax, and you say ‘we’re going to extend this for a year or two,’ employers do not hire people for a year or two,” Romney said at the Bloomberg debate in New Hampshire last month. “I don’t like temporary little Band-Aids,” he added.
Senior Obama campaign officials say Romney’s mere appearance of wanting to tear that “Band-Aid” off — while simultaneously blocking higher taxes on wealthier Americans and seeking to rollback regulations on Wall Street — gives Democrats and Obama an edge, especially with white independents in states like Pennsylvania.
Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 points over John McCain in 2008 and Lackawanna County, which includes Scranton, by a wide 62-to-36-percent margin. The county remains a Democratic stronghold, but Obama’s support statewide has been on the slide.
A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month found 52 percent of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of Obama, while just 41 percent say Obama would do a better job handling the economy compared to Mitt Romney, who had 45 percent support.
“In Pennsylvania, where Obama got his biggest win of the three swing states in 2008, he does no better against the GOP challengers,” said Qunnipiac’s Peter Brown. “He won the Keystone State by double digits in 2008. But, even here his job approval ratings have been in the mid-40s or lower most of the year. Few expect that same double-digit margin if he carries the state next November.”
Nationwide among non-college-educated whites Obama fares worse. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found just 30 percent of those voters trust Obama to do a better job protecting the middle class than Republicans. And in a hypothetical match-up with Romney, the former governor leads by double digits, 52-to-36 percent.
Ahead of Obama’s trip — his eighth to Pennsylvania this year — the Republican National Committee began blasting the president over the state’s unemployment rate, which has lingered above 8 percent.
“In 2008, Obama told the people of Scranton that his green energy plan would ‘lower gas prices and create millions of jobs.’ The program has done neither. He said he would have a plan to ‘stabilize the housing market.’ So far, his plan has simply not worked,” said RNC spokesman Joe Pounder in an email. “Finally, he said he would be ‘a president who is not playing the usual political games.’ His campaign style trip to Scranton is testament alone to that failed promise.”
Administration officials brush off criticism of the president’s “official” travel and insist the economy is on the mend, even if not quickly enough.
And as for the odds of winning Pennsylvania in 2012, Obama’s campaign team said it is confident Democrats’ 1.1 million voter registration advantage won’t be overcome.
“We have a million more Democrats and we have the ability to turn out voters like no one’s ever done before,” a senior Obama campaign official told ABC News. “In the last campaign, we had over 400 staff on the ground. We just don’t have a million person advantage in any other states. We can really do some things there. ”
The question for the months ahead will be whether Obama can get them out to vote.