Obama Testing 2-Tier Strategy for Re-election

Helene Cooper|The New York Times
President Barack Obama speaking on Fiscal Policy
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WASHINGTON — Just three hours afterPresident Obama announced that he was defying Congressional Republicans to fill a high-level regulatory position while lawmakers were out of town, Mitt Romney sent out the obligatory news release ripping the president. “Chicago-style politics at its worst,” Mr. Romney fumed, accusing the president of “circumventing Congress.”

The statement was just what the White House wanted. It put the Republican presidential front-runner squarely on the side of the Republicans in Congress, a group with toxic poll numbers that the president’s campaign hopes will hurt his rivals for the White House.

“Our presidential election campaign is not a campaign against Congress,” a senior administration official said on Thursday. “We know we’ll run against a person.” But insofar as Mr. Obama has decided to target Republicans in Congress — a body with historically low approval ratings after a year of jousting with the president — he will also be seeking to twin his opponent, to any extent he can, with the 112th Congress.

Upon the president’s return from Hawaii, the Obama campaign this week unleashed a carefully scripted and deliberately aggressive strategy that showed a White House in combative re-election mode as the president and his advisers sought to ensure that the Republicans did not get all the political limelight. Mr. Obama inserted himself into the media blitz of what was supposed to be an all-Republican show, the Iowa caucuses, when his campaign took out a huge advertisement on the home page of The Des Moines Register on caucus day and he spoke by video conference to Democrats gathered in the state.

“The Republican candidates are leaving Iowa. But their terrible plans are here to stay,” was the declaration that greeted readers who went to the newspaper’s Web site to get caucus updates.

On Wednesday, after waiting until the dust in Iowa had settled, clearing out space in newspapers and on television, Mr. Obama delivered another jab, announcing four recess appointments, including that of Richard Cordray as head of a new consumer protection agency, despite Republican opposition. On Thursday, the president went to the Pentagon and outlined a new military strategy that embraces hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to what is a Republican sacred cow, and made it clear that American ground forces would no longer be large enough to conduct prolonged, large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Friday, he will take a victory lap with Mr. Cordray in a visit with the staff of the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

White House and administration officials insist that all of Mr. Obama’s actions this week — with the exception of the advertisement — are policy decisions made for the good of the country. But from Marine One — the helicopter where Mr. Obama and Mr. Cordray revved up on Wednesday for the forthcoming fight — to the West Wing corridors to his campaign offices in Chicago, the president’s battle for re-election is quickly escalating as he sets out to use the advantages of his office to full effect.

The president’s move last fall to take his jobs plan on the road to try to sell it to the American public, an effort that culminated in the extension battle that is now widely perceived as a win for Mr. Obama and a debacle for Congressional Republicans, was just the beginning, administration officials and Mr. Obama’s advisers say.

David Plouffe, one of Mr. Obama’s senior political advisers, has argued in meetings at the White House that Republicans will overreach in their efforts to oppose the president’s initiatives. And administration officials believe that is what House conservatives did in the case of the payroll tax cut, with the Tea Partywing of House Republicans initially balking at a compromise deal that Senate Republicans had signed on to and sparking a backlash in the public. The refusal of Senate Republicans to allow many of Mr. Obama’s nominees to be confirmed, White House officials believe, could also end up hurting the Republicans, if it feeds the notion that they are standing in the way of the business of government.

“It is a matter of fact that the contenders for the Republican nomination have all endorsed and adopted the position espoused by the House Republicans” in the recess appointment battle, a senior administration official said on Thursday. And that, administration officials have concluded, puts Mr. Obama at an advantage as he seeks to establish a narrative this year of him as the defender of middle-class Americans and the Republicans in Congress of the rich.

So in the next few weeks, there will be more executive initiatives that will portray the president as refusing to wait on a hostile Congress to take action to help Americans, officials say.

And there could be more recess appointments, if not in the coming days, then next month, when Congress is expected to recess over the Washington’s Birthday Day holiday. Some Senate Republicans, furious over the recess appointments, said they would retaliate by not approving any more Obama nominees. But since so many of Mr. Obama’s nominees have been held up anyway, the president may simply continue the precedent he established Wednesday, and use the break in February to appoint another batch of people, administration officials said.

There will also be announcements of more “We Can’t Wait” projects — the term the White House has adopted for executive action initiatives, like a plan to provide summer jobs to young people, which the White House announced on Wednesday.