SCRANTON, Pa. -- In a fiery bid to identify his policy agenda with the nation's values, President Barack Obama urged voters Wednesday to press Congress to extend and expand a payroll tax cut.
Even as some Republicans have signaled a willingness to move on the issue, Mr. Obama blamed the failure to enact it so far on partisan stubbornness.
"I don't know whether it's just because I proposed it," he said, contending that opposition to the continued cut was at odds with the Republican Party's usual ideology of lower taxation.
Mr. Obama tried to cast the issue as a matter of fairness to lower- and middle-class Americans. Various Republican lawmakers have said they would be willing to extend the payroll tax cut enacted last year, but there is disagreement in Congress on how to pay for it. The administration has called for a tax increase on higher-income Americans, a plan the president defended, to the partisan crowd's applause, in his remarks at Scranton High School.
"What I've said is, to pay for this tax cut, we need to ask wealthy Americans to pay their fair share," he said to loud applause.
"Let's ask them to help out a little bit because they made it though the recession better than the rest of us."
Republican lawmakers oppose the proposal to take more revenue from more affluent taxpayers and have floated a variety of potential alternatives to paying for the continued tax break. On Wednesday, Politico reported, for example, that one possibility discussed by GOP senators was a wage freeze for federal employees.
"This cannot be a matter of who wins and loses in Washington; this is about delivering a win for the American people," Mr. Obama said.
In a starkly populist argument, Mr. Obama insisted that the policy dispute was a reflection of the nation's traditional values.
"That's the very simple choice that's facing Congress right now: Are you going to cut taxes for the middle class and those who are trying to get into the middle class? Or are you going to protect massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, many of whom don't even want those tax breaks?"
Mr. Obama said he hopes members of Congress think hard about this, because their actions lately "don't reflect who we are as a people."
"What does it say about our priorities when we'd rather protect a few really well-to-do people than fight for the jobs of teachers and firefighters?" he said. "What does it say when ??? we'd rather fight for corporate tax breaks than put construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our schools? What does it say about us if we're willing to cut taxes for the people who don't need them, and raise them on folks who do need a tax break?"
Mr. Obama spoke in a wake of Republican derision for his campaign-style appearance. State Republican chairman Rob Gleason told reporters before the speech that the appearance amounted to an effort to disguise the failures of his economic policies in a corner of the state where unemployment rates top the nation average. Mr. Gleason predicted that Pennsylvania would join a national rejection of the president's fiscal record in next year's election.
Mr. Obama defended that record, citing the harsh conditions that greeted his administration and invoking the image of his vice president and Scranton's favorite son, Joe Biden.
"This is a town where he and so many of you grew up with a faith in an America where hard work matters, where responsibility matters, where, if you remain true to those things, you can get ahead. Those ideas felt like they were slipping away for a lot of people."
"There's a sense of deep frustration among people who've done the right thing but don't see that hard work and responsibility pay off," he continued.
Republicans had tried to exploit the fact that another native son, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, did not appear with the president, an absence that the senator explained by the need to cast votes in the Senate.
Mr. Obama emphasized that there was no distance between them on the payroll tax issue.
"Scranton, you've got a great senator in Sen. Casey. I love Sen. Casey. I want you to know Casey's already on the program," he said.
In one more exhortation to the crowd to pressure Congress, he urged them to tell their lawmakers, "Don't be a Grinch. Don't vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays."
This corner of the state lined up for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary but produced big margins for Mr. Obama in the general election. In the 2010 congressional elections, however, its voters threw out two incumbent Democratic congressmen.
Standing in the audience before the speech, former Scranton Mayor Jim McNulty conceded some erosion in support for the president, but he predicted that the more frankly partisan approach he anticipated in the speech would rally Democrats.
The Obama problem now is that "we have the highest rate of unemployment in the state," he said. "What he's doing today is the right way for us: talking about jobs."
Mr. McNulty said the president had been, in one sense, burdened by the high expectations that greeted his administration, including his pledges to change the partisan tone of Washington.
"He's come to the realization that, 'If I can't change them, I'm going to beat them,'???" the veteran Democrat said.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published December 1, 2011 5:00 AM