President Obama meets with labor leaders at the White House on Tuesday to discuss how to steer clear of the so-called fiscal cliff. It's the first of many meetings aimed at avoiding automatic tax increases and spending cuts at the beginning of the new year.
A week ago, the president proved again that he and his team are good at winning elections. The question now is whether he can translate victory at the ballot box to success in shaping policy.
The 62 million Americans who voted to re-elect the president last week had no illusions about what they were doing. One could argue that four years ago, Obama was something of a blank slate, on which voters could project whatever they wanted. But if 2008 was the soft-focus honeymoon, 2012 is the hard-won anniversary — in which the bonds between the president and his supporters have been tested and survived.
Part of what voters know now is that Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He made no secret of that during stalled budget talks with congressional Republicans last year or during the long months of the presidential campaign.
"It was debated over and over again. And on Tuesday night, we found out that the majority of Americans agree with my approach," Obama said. "And that includes Democrats, independents and a lot of Republicans across the country."
Indeed, exit polls found 60 percent of voters believe income taxes should go up — either for the wealthiest Americans or for everyone. That includes 40 percent of the people who voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says lawmakers have to pay attention to numbers like that. At the president's victory celebration in Chicago last week, Emanuel, now the city's mayor, said it could set the stage for the kind of compromise President Clinton achieved with a Republican Congress when he was re-elected in 1996.
"We had a big battle in '95 and '96. President Clinton won. Nine months later, there was a balanced budget agreement," said Emanuel, a former Democratic congressman. "Because when you get an election, elections have meaning, they have value. And anybody in Washington who ignores the voters plays peril with those types of politics."
Since the election, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has shown some willingness to collect more tax revenue from the wealthy, so long as it can be done without raising tax rates. Obama says he's encouraged by Boehner's newfound flexibility. But he's not just waiting passively for congressional Republicans to come around to where a majority of voters are.
"The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside," Obama said during an interview with Univision in late September. "You can only change it from the outside."
The president noted that public pressure from outside Washington can be an important tool in moving a reluctant Congress. Obama mobilized such pressure only sporadically during his first term — to pass a payroll tax cut, for example — but he suggested he might turn to the public more often in the future.
"Something that I'd really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people, so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward," he said.
That's easier said than done, as Obama discovered in his first term, when he quickly gave up on his pledge to hold health care talks on national television. It's one thing to command voters' attention during the final weeks of a close presidential campaign, and quite another to keep them focused during a months-long debate over tax policy.
Still, Obama says he's determined to try harder this time. He told voters in Ohio shortly before Election Day that their responsibilities don't stop at the ballot box.
"Even after that, I'm going to need all of you involved to make sure that we don't let up," he said. "Because one of the things I think we've all learned over these last four years is our democracy only works when the American people are involved and engaged."
That's the point of this week's meetings with labor leaders and CEOs. Obama wants all the support he can muster as he heads into negotiations with Congress — and not just from the grassroots army that carried him to a second term.
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