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Obama hints at campaign strategy pitting him against ‘do-nothing’ Congress

HONOLULU, Hawaii — Heading into the new year, President Barack Obama will insist that Congress renew the payroll tax cut through the end of 2012, but will otherwise limit his dealings with an unpopular Congress, and instead travel the country to deliver his re-election message directly to voters, a White House aide said.

“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.,” said spokesman Josh Earnest in a press briefing in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The assertion is striking given that Obama, as president for nearly three years, is both the symbol and personification of the federal government. It also offers a glimpse into an Obama re-election strategy that will target a “do-nothing” Congress much in the style of Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948.

With most legislative cliffhangers behind him, Obama does not consider the rest of his policy agenda to be a “must-do” for lawmakers, Earnest said.

Rather, the White House believes Obama is well-served by continuing to distance himself from a Congress often blamed for Washington’s gridlock and infighting.

As the year unfolds, Obama will roll out more initiatives designed to boost the economy and assist struggling families using executive authority, the White House aide said. Obama has already unveiled 20 such measures under the new slogan, “We can’t wait.”

Earnest said that the White House goal is to contrast the image of a “gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress” with “a president who’s leaving no stone unturned to try to find solutions to the difficult financial challenges and economic challenges facing this country.”

Obama will also make the case for passage of his $447 billion jobs package, most of which Congress has rejected over the past three months.

His jobs plan includes money to keep public workers on the job and rebuild the nation’s roads, ports and bridges. But it seems doubtful that he’ll push Congress to enact his jobs plan with the same focus that he brought to the payroll tax cut debate.

Nothing else on Obama’s menu requires congressional action as urgently as the tax cut, the White House said. If Congress were to let the payroll tax cut expire at the end of February, tens of millions of Americans would be hit with a tax increase, harming the fragile economic recovery, the White House contends.

Earnest said that now that Obama is “sort of free from having to put out these fires, the president will have a larger playing field, as it were. And if that playing field includes working with Congress, all the better. But I think my point is, is that that’s no longer a requirement.”

In late December, Congress agreed to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, following a high-stakes showdown with Obama that delayed his Hawaiian vacation for six days.

In pushing his jobs plan — which included the payroll tax cut — Obama often mocked lawmakers who opposed it for fear of giving him “a win” in the political sense. He bristled over such characterizations, saying the aim was not short-term political advantage but a solution for the nation’s high jobless rate.

Now that the payroll tax cut has been extended, the White House is resorting to some of the same language that Obama had rejected. White House aides have made clear that Obama fought — and won — a battle with congressional Republicans.

The president did so in part by trying to adopt a new political persona. Earnest described him as having “worked to claim the mantle as a warrior for the middle class.”

He’ll try to emphasize that identity in the new year, perhaps as early as Wednesday when he travels to Cleveland, Ohio, to give a speech on the economy.

That trip comes one day after the Republican caucuses in Iowa, the first major contest in the race to establish a GOP nominee.

Obama won’t congratulate the winner, the White House said, but he will try to distinguish himself from Republican candidates who are bashing each other in a fierce campaign.

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