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Had House GOP been playing into Obama’s hands with hard-line stance on payroll tax?

By David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in the House of Representatives may have avoided steering their entire party toward political disaster in 2012 by giving up Thursday on their refusal to back a short-term Social Security payroll tax extension.

(PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference in the South Auditorium of the White House inWashington, D.C., December 22, 2011, to urge House Republicans to vote on the short term bipartisan compromise passed by almost the entire Senate. If Congress fails to extend the payroll tax cut, the typical family making $50,000 a year will have about $40 less to spend or save with each paycheck.)

But their weeklong obstinacy may still have given President Barack Obama an important boost.

The GOP change of heart came after days of relentless pressure from the White House, friendly fire from many conservatives including The Wall Street Journal and, on Thursday, from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

If the House and Senate agree to the two-month extension, which is likely to happen Friday, 160 million Americans will see their Social Security taxes remain at 2011 levels through February — and avoid an average $80 a month tax hike. Under terms of the deal, both sides will negotiate toward trying to extend the terms for a full year.

But the political fallout is likely to linger.

“This just reinforces the public’s suspicions about the Republican Party, which were already pretty negative,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan polling outfit.

Until House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, capitulated Thursday, House Republicans had seemed to be playing into Obama’s hands. It was reminiscent of 1995-96, when Newt Gingrich led the House GOP and Bill Clinton was the Democratic president. Gingrich overplayed his hand in a fight over budget priorities, Clinton refused to go along and the federal government shut down twice — the second time from Dec. 15 through Jan. 6. Clinton persuaded the public that GOP extremism was to blame and coasted to an easy re-election that fall.

The parallels were striking. Like Clinton in 1995, Obama has been positioning himself since Labor Day as the protector of the middle class. He’s called almost daily for a tax hike on millionaires to underscore his distinction from Republicans, who defend the millionaires and now are on the verge of forcing a tax increase on workers.

Obama’s already gained in polls. A new survey for CNN taken Dec. 16-18 put his approval rating at 49 percent, up 5 points from last month. And a new ABC News-Washington Post poll released this week showed that 50 percent of Americans trust Obama more to protect the middle class, vs. 35 percent who trust Republicans. Last month the two had been more evenly matched.

Obama “has the high ground,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas, though he warned, “Events can change that.”

And despite Obama’s current momentum, “what’s going on is very much inside Washington,” cautioned Charles Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The 1995-96 budget debate was an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon in holiday season, too — until it forced real consequences on the country by shutting down the federal government. Similarly, the current tax-cut extension fight could be forgotten amid public pre-occupation with the holiday season — unless the two sides deadlock again in two months and taxes go up.

If that happens, it is the president who possesses “the bully pulpit” to shape public perception of who’s to blame.

“Incumbent presidents have enormous advantages,” Newt Gingrich observed on Wednesday at an Iowa news conference, recalling how Clinton triumphed over him in 1996. “It’s very hard for the legislative branch to outperform the president in communications. He has all the advantages of being one person. He has all the advantages of the White House as a backdrop, and my experience is presidents routinely win.”

House leaders caved after strong pressure from Senate Republicans. McConnell publicly urged his House colleagues to make a deal Thursday — an important game-changer, after growing numbers of Senate Republicans publicly implored their House colleagues to back down.

“Are Republicans getting killed now in public opinion? There’s no question about it,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday on CNBC.

Democrats say they’ll resume negotiations with Republicans after the holidays toward making that a full-year extension before the two-month deadline hits.

Most House Republicans didn’t want to yield, even though they were getting pummeled politically.

“The headlines are creaming us,” Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, conceded Tuesday. “I get that. But we have the moral high ground.”

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