WASHINGTON — Targeting Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, President Barack Obama is heading to New Hampshire, a political battleground, to begin a year-end push to extend payroll tax cuts.
During a speech Tuesday at a Manchester high school, the president was to argue that a failure to extend the tax breaks would hurt middle-class families already struggling amid a shaky economy, effectively daring congressional Republicans to block the extension and thus increase taxes.
"If we don't act, taxes will go up for every single American, starting next year. And I'm not about to let that happen," Obama said Monday, previewing the message he was expected to deliver.
But if Republicans are in Obama's sights, he's firmly in theirs, too.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is airing his first TV ads in the Granite State, and they are sharply critical of Obama's economic record. He also ran ads in New Hampshire newspapers that say to Obama, "I will be blunt. Your policies have failed."
The president's trip follows the collapse of the special congressional deficit-reduction supercommittee, which failed to reach a deal on $1.2 trillion in cuts. Democrats had hoped to tuck the payroll tax extension, as well as a renewal of jobless benefits for the unemployed, into a supercommittee agreement.
With that option seemingly off the table, the White House plans to make a full-court press for a separate measure to extend the payroll tax cuts before they expire at the end of the year — and set up Republicans as the scapegoat if that doesn't happen.
The White House says a middle-class family making $50,000 a year would see its taxes rise by $1,000 if the payroll tax cuts are not extended.
Republicans aren't wholly opposed to the extension. In fact, party members sent the White House a letter in September stating that extension of the payroll tax cut is one element of Obama's $447 billion jobs bill where the two sides may be able to find common ground.
Some Republicans worry that the tax cut extension would undermine the solvency of Social Security, and others are opposed to any effort to pay for the renewal by taxing the wealthiest Americans.
Last year's cut in the 6.2 percent payroll tax, which raises money for Social Security, was accomplished with borrowed money. The White House has been vague on exactly how it wants to see another round of cuts paid for; spokesman Jay Carney on Monday said only that the money should come from "asking millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit extra."
A senior administration official said the president would not insist on the cuts being paid for immediately. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration strategy.
The 2 percent payroll tax cut expiring in December gave 121 million families a tax cut averaging $934 last year at a total cost of about $120 billion, according to the Tax Policy Center. Economists say allowing the cuts to expire would harm an economy already hobbled by 9 percent unemployment.
Obama wants to cut the payroll tax by another percentage point for workers, at a total cost of $179 billion, and cut the employer share of the tax in half as well for most companies, which carries a $69 billion price tag.
The issue could appeal to independent voters in low-tax New Hampshire, the presidential swing state Obama won in 2008. With Republican candidates blanketing the state with an anti-Obama message ahead of the Jan. 10 primary, the president and his surrogates, including Vice President Joe Biden, are seeking to steal some of the spotlight for their economic message.
It's been nearly two years since Obama visited New Hampshire. And on Tuesday, he'll find a state that has shifted distinctly to the right since his 2008 victory. Recent polls indicate that, if an election between the two of them were held today, Obama would lose by roughly 10 percentage points to Romney.
Romney's print ads, in the form of an open letter, say the evidence on Obama's economic stewardship is "unequivocal" — his policies have "fallen short even by the standards your own administration set for itself."
"Far from bringing the crisis to an end, (they) have actively hindered economic recovery," the ad says.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.