White House’s #40dollars campaign is a hit

December 22, 2011

This is politics in 2011: Newt Gingrich is campaigning for Iowa caucus votes in bookstores that aren’t even in the first-to-vote state, Mitt Romney is burnishing his national lead over everyone but Gingrich with a self-deprecating “Top 10 List” on Late Night with David Letterman — and the White House is burning up Twitter in a showdown with House Republicans.

Read elsewhere for the ins and outs of the brinkmanship on the legislation whose primary purpose is to extend a so-called “payroll tax holiday” past Dec. 31.  Inaction will result in the end of a sweet tax break for workers that’s not quite as sweet for the federal coffers. Depending on which side of the debate you are on, you can find plenty of spin to try to seize the high ground. The Obama administration has been fond of saying that the end of the holiday will cost 160 million U.S. taxpayers an average of $1,000 in 2012 — by pure coincidence, a presidential election year.

But the president’s communications team has become even fonder of crafting its message for the social media generation by breaking up that $1,000 into a more bite-sized $40 pieces, per bi-weekly paycheck. Through that massaging of the message, they have created a Twitter trending topic called #40dollars. It’s not surprising that Obama’s team has been particularly adroit at the whole internet thing. Their man was a candidate who famously sought a meeting with Mark Andreessen — the two had never met — to talk about how social media might be leveraged in the 2008 election he won against considerable odds.

Now the administration has renovated WhiteHouse.gov’s sleepy political real estate and transformed it into an up-to-the-second focal point in the increasingly fractious yet fascinating battle over the tax bill. The game of musical chairs reversing our usual politics over tax cuts is even splitting key players within the two parties. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard — or maybe even with one. Senate Republicans, who voted to pass an Obama-backed compromise bill, are turning on their House colleagues. Reliably conservative media is saying WTF.

Did Obama say this — or Sen. Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts)? “It angers me that House Republicans would rather continue playing politics than find solutions.”

Did The New York Times write this in an editorial — or the Wall Street Journal? “The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.”

Who called the Journal piece “right on the mark”? Was it Obama — or Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the guy Obama beat in the 2008 presidential election?

Sure, Brown and some of the other Republican Senators in the lopsided 89-10 vote in favor are up for re-election next year. Brown in particular has it tough as a first-termer in a heavily Democratic state. But it isn’t often this kind of intra-squad criticism is so pointedly made for public consumption. I can only imagine what they are saying to each other behind closed doors.

The White House got the social media ball rolling with a posting Monday asking for anecdotes on what the lost income would mean on an individual level. It also  and helpfully providing links to Twitter and a tutorial on how to post to Facebook. They’re also aggregating the hashtag on Storify. The topic is also a being incessantly discussed on every cable TV political show.

This makes the direct impact of any social media efforts on the outcome difficult to gauge. But social media is by definition empowering — first to the individual, because it helps remove all filters, and also in mass, because its numbers are utterly transparent to anyone who wants to keep score.

It used to be that voters needed to jam the switchboard of their congressmen to make their voices heard in a fast-breaking debate. Now you can whisper in Times Square and be heard on Capitol Hill.

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