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Washington - The White House signaled Tuesday that it will attempt to marshal the momentum from President Barack Obama's re-election into another victory at the negotiating table, launching a full-fledged public relations effort to avoid a "fiscal cliff" that could jolt the nation back toward recession.
Administration officials said Obama will hit the road for a campaign-style series of events this week with ordinary Americans, including a visit to a toy manufacturer in suburban Philadelphia on Friday. That trip and others will be aimed at increasing pressure on Congress to reach an agreement on heading off a series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that are scheduled to begin in January.
The push comes as top Democratic and Republican leaders work to avoid a standoff on the issue, which includes debate about Obama's insistence that tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans enacted by President George W. Bush should expire.
On Tuesday, several leading Democrats called on Obama to demand that Republicans agree to raise the nation's $16.4 trillion debt limit as part of any fiscal deal.
"We would be somewhat foolish to work out something on stopping us from going over the cliff and then a month or six weeks later, the Republicans would pull the same game they did before," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., referring to the calamitous debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011.
Obama's move to mobilize his re-election apparatus for the fiscal debate signals that he intends to follow through on remarks he made during the campaign, when he suggested that major reform required public pressure from outside the Beltway.
"You can't change Washington from the inside," he said at a Univision forum in Miami in September. "You can only change it from the outside."
Obama now hopes to make good on that pledge and force his GOP rivals to agree to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class but allow them to expire for families earning more than $250,000 in net taxable income.
The president met at the White House on Tuesday with more than a dozen small-business owners from across the country, and he intends to play host today to middle-class Americans who would be affected by tax increases if Congress does not act. He also will meet with chief executives from big businesses.
On Friday, Obama will travel to Hatfield, Pa., to visit TinkerToy manufacturers K'nex Brands and Rodon Group, where he will highlight businesses that rely on middle-class consumers, especially during the holiday shopping season.
"The primary concern for most people, including myself, was getting some sort of certainty and clarity around the issue," said Mandy Cabot, founder of Dansko, a footwear company in West Grove, Pa., who was among those who met with Obama on Tuesday. "There was a lot of talk about shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. Compromise was the order of the day."
The president's public relations gambit escalated an already tense negotiating atmosphere in Washington, as Republican leaders denounced the move as a "campaign" ploy aimed at bypassing congressional leaders. But Democrats hailed the strategy as evidence that the president had learned from past mistakes in not galvanizing public opinion behind his most important initiatives on health care and previous fiscal standoffs.
"The president's team has finally come to the realization that they can't negotiate with hostage-takers," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Reid. "And so in light of Republicans still being so intransigent, the only way to get something done is if they take their case directly to the American people."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the public relations strategy makes sense because the outcome of the negotiations will have a direct impact on Americans' pocketbooks. The Obama administration has estimated that middle-class citizens will pay an average of $2,200 in additional taxes next year if Congress does not extend the cuts.
Republican leaders sharply criticized the president's approach, saying that he is focused on the wrong constituency. Declaring that the "time for campaigning is over," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama should focus on ensuring that Democrats are willing to compromise over higher tax rates for the wealthy, something Republicans oppose.
"It was with some concern that I read this morning that the president plans to hit the road this week to drum up support for his own personal approach to the short- and long-term fiscal challenges we face," McConnell said. "So let me suggest that if the president wants a solution to the challenges of the moment, the people he needs to be talking to are the members of his own party, so he can convince them of the need to act."
Still, in a sign that Obama's strategy posed a threat, House Republicans announced their own public relations effort Tuesday, focused on the argument that raising taxes on the rich would hurt businesses and the sluggish recovery. Leadership aides said Republican members of Congress would visit small businesses nationwide in coming weeks to assert that Obama's position would threaten job creation.
White House aides said Obama learned his lesson about relying solely on direct negotiations with House Republicans in the summer of 2011 when he was unable to achieve a "grand bargain" over deficit reduction with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
After the messy collapse of those talks resulted in the nation's credit rating being downgraded for the first time, Obama abruptly changed strategies, embarking on a national tour to hawk a jobs bill and delivering a major speech on the economy in Osawatomie, Kan.
The strategic shift was capped off last December, when Obama successfully negotiated an extension of payroll tax cuts that administration officials considered vital to the economic recovery.
As he will do this week, Obama visited a Pennsylvania town that month to rally support - appearing at a union hall in Scranton. He also invited ordinary Americans to the White House and began a social-media campaign on Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, Boehner agreed to extend the payroll tax cut without winning additional concessions from the White House.
Carney was asked at his daily briefing Tuesday whether the president would be better served by remaining in town this week for direct negotiations with House Republicans rather than by traveling outside the Beltway to appeal to the public.
"Only inside the Beltway do people think that sitting in a room for a photo spray will solve problems," Carney replied, referring to media slang for an appearance by politicians aimed primarily at photographers. "I don't think there is a lot of faith that a bunch of people sitting around a table in a room are going to solve problems on behalf of the American people . . . if those sitting around the table aren't also communicating and engaging with the American people."
Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.