By STEPHANIE Z. SMITH
The president will continue to claim the mantle for "warrior of the working class" in 2012 in stark contrast to the public perception that Republicans in Congress are backing millionaires, not the middle class, a senior White House official tells ABC News.
And that message will be carried through President Obama's reelection campaign next year. "We're going to be doubling down on our commitment and our message in terms of fighting for the middle class," Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters covering the president in Hawaii.
After a heated battle between the White House and House Republicans, the payroll tax cut was extended until the end of February - a battle the president ultimately won albeit for just two months. It also delayed the president's vacation here, but the White House official noted that it gave the president and his senior advisers time to work through policy proposals that they plan to roll out in the new year - one being to extend the payroll tax cut through the end of 2012.
"The significance of that fight is that it gave the president an opportunity to establish his bona fides on an issue that, at least in recent history, Democrats haven't necessarily fared very well with, which is the issue of taxes," Earnest noted.
And extending it through the end of 2012 is a "must-do item of business" on the president's Congressional agenda. "I think the president still has a strong hand on the payroll tax," observed Rick Klein, senior Washington editor for "World News with Diane Sawyer." "It's going to be hard not to extend it for a year, politically."
ABC New Political Director Amy Walter added: "The Obama folks should take some comfort in the fact that Obama's numbers have improved in the wake of the payroll tax fight. Republicans looked disorganized and petty, which helped Obama look more presidential."
"We Can't Wait"
Another key part of early 2012 will be to ramp up the pace of the "We Can't Wait" initiatives. Since October, President Obama put in place some 20 executive actions that do not require Congressional approval and aim to boost public opinion of his job performance. They included orders to help borrowers refinance their mortgage loans, new job search tools for unemployed military veterans and a program to help college students manage their student loans.
"The president will also be demonstrating to the American public that he's not going to wait on Congress," Earnest said and predicts the orders will be issued at the same pace as before - around two to three a week. "He's going to seize every opportunity that he has to put in place the kinds of policies that will continue and strengthen our economic recovery."
Congress Versus President
The White House hopes it will give "an image of a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress, and a president who's leaving no stone unturned to try to find solutions to the difficult financial challenges and economic challenges facing this country," Earnest added. And a vision they hope will translate to voters: "In terms of the president's relationship with Congress in 2012…the state of the debate, if you will, the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C."
"There are certainly a number of other things that we're interested in trying to work with Congress to get done. But the reason that that is important is, is it does allow the president to take his case to the American public and not get sucked into a policy debate in the weeds that often seems pretty inaccessible to people all across the country," Earnest said.
Says ABC's Walters: "Ultimately, the question a lot of voters are going to be asking themselves next fall is this: If Obama can't work with GOP Congress to get stuff done now, why will he be able to do it in 2013 when Congress will still be controlled by the GOP?"
The Message: A Fair Shake, Fair Shot and Fair Share
The White House is currently honing its main message which was previewed in a speech the president gave on December 6 in Osawatomie, Kansas, where he mentioned the words middle class 28 times. That message - give Americans a fair shake, a fair shot, and that everybody pays their fair share - is one shared by protesters of Occupy Wall Street and one the White House hopes resonates with voters.
"Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent. That is the height of unfairness," Obama said. "It is wrong. It's wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million."
"You see the start of a compelling message, particularly around taxes," Klein observed. "But Democrats won't have the upper hand on the tax issue very often. They're going to have to hit the middle class champion note everywhere they go, all year. They do have a chance to portray Republican policies as out of touch, but it's a bank-shot argument when you're overseeing an economy that's still sputtering."
So when does the president begin campaigning? Earnest insists Obama will not be focused on his reelection campaign in early 2012. "Even though the dial on the odometer has slipped to 2012, the president will be focused on the task at hand. There will be time later in the year to focus on the reelection."
But Klein predicts we'll see a full-fledged campaign soon enough. "If they're not focusing on the reelection until after the Republican nomination is settled, that would be political malpractice. Of course they are focused on it - it's the prism through which everything will be done in 2012," Klein said.
"There will be a time and a place for that…and that time and place is not early January," Earnest said. But he noted that the president will not maintain a low profile as the Republican presidential candidates duke it out. "In the midst of a competitive Republican primary, you can anticipate that the president will continue to be visible, that he'll continue to have a pretty aggressive travel schedule outside of Washington, D.C.," Earnest said.
He'll be out there "advocating for the kinds of policies that will be focused on the economy, and that will be in pretty stark contrast to Republican candidates that will be focused on creative ways to say bad things about their opponents for the presidency."
As the saying goes, get ready for a bumpy ride.