Obama Is Using the Permacampaign to Change Washington From the Outside

The president aims to win the fiscal-cliff debate the same he won the election -- barnstorming through battleground states and email-blasting supporters.

President Obama meets with middle-class families in Falls Church, Virginia, on December 6. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Already, it feels like he's back on the trail. Just a month after the election, as the fiscal cliff approaches, President Obama has held just one meeting at the White House with Speaker John Boehner in the last three weeks, yet has taken the time to go to Pennsylvania and Virginia and chat with suburbanites and business owners. From the outside, he's building the consensus that he's looking for in Washington.

On Thursday, he held a photo op with a teacher's family at her apartment in suburban Virginia, telling a small camera crew about the importance of extending the current tax rate for a family's first $250,000 of earned income and raising the rate for incomes above that. A week earlier he spoke, jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled up, before 350 people on a toy-factory floor in Pennsylvania, telling the self-described middle-class Americans to call on Congress to prevent a middle-class tax hike. Republicans and Democrats "already all agree, we say, on making sure middle-class taxes don't go up," he said, "so let's get that done." He told cameras and the crowd to write and call members of Congress and to post on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #My2k ($2,000 is the estimated size of the tax hike on a middle-class family's income if the tax provisions are all allowed to expire). And then to back it all up, on Monday afternoon he spent a little less than an hour answering questions on Twitter about the subject. He took eight questions in all, though one was about the Chicago Bears.

The confines of 140 characters are tight, and it was hard to discuss nuanced fiscal policy in those limits. That wasn't really the point of the exercise, though. Obama didn't want to convince opponents he was right; he wanted his supporters to agree with him. He wanted to release some talking points into the echo chamber of the Internet and have them bounce around for a while. He wanted to trend.

This isn't the first time the president has reached out to the American people -- or turned to Twitter -- to affect public policy. During a political fight in April to extend student-loan rates, the president told an audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Call your member of Congress. Email them. Write on their Facebook page. Tweet them -- we've got a hashtag ... #dontdoublemyrate." And about this time last year, as Congress was debating whether or not to extend the Payroll Tax Cut, the White House rolled out the hashtag #40dollars -- the estimated cost per paycheck on a $50,000 salary if the tax cut were to end.

Back then he got some flak for trying to politicize policy debates and for using tax dollars to travel to contested states and campaign against a do-nothing Congress. But that would seem like an odd criticism now. After all, 51 percent of the country just voted for Barack Obama to lead the country, not Mitt Romney. The election is over.

Obama didn't want to convince opponents he was right. He wanted to let some talking points bounce around the echo chamber of the Internet for a while. He wanted to trend.

Isn't it?

Well, yes. But Obama's never been much of a champion of one-on-one negotiations, so for this latest round of haggling he's trying out a new tactic. Or, rather, he's going back to the old one.

After his reelection in 2004, President Bush gloated, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Obama has said nothing of the sort, even though he won dozens more electoral votes. Instead of talking about his earned capital, he's going back to the same people who just elected him -- like the teacher in Virginia and the factory workers in Pennsylvania -- and waving it in Republicans' faces. They hardly need reminding of their weakened hand: Most Americans have already said they would blame congressional Republicans if the government didn't get a deal on the fiscal cliff. So instead of talking about his mandate, Obama has been showing it off it in full force every night on national television and every afternoon on social networks. He's running again, just not for office.

It's the perma-campaign, an implementation of the notion that "you can't change Washington from the inside" for which the president was derided on the campaign trail this autumn. When Obama said in September that was the most important lesson he'd learned from his first four years, pundits snickered and Republicans joked they'd be glad to give him the chance to continue his project from Chicago. Yet here he is, with rallies and speeches and Twitter hashtags, trying to change Washington from the outside in. Meanwhile, labor groups and corporations are weighing in with TV commercials, and Obama's reelection effort is using its email list to have supporters explain why they think it's important to extend the middle-class tax cuts. The campaign hasn't really ended at all -- just evolved. But now it's about policy issues, not political mobilization. It's about creating a groundswell of support to remind the president's opponents that most of the country agrees with him, not them. It's about keeping up the momentum, not just casting a ballot and going home. And Obama's using all the trappings of the presidency to do it.

Recently, the president sent an email to the White House email list, writing in the first person in a tone familiar from the endless fundraising emails over the past year. It was distinguishable from one of them only by the White House seal at the top. That, and instead of signing his name "Barack," he signed it "President Obama"