WASHINGTON -- With an economic calamity looming, President Obama on Friday signaled willingness to compromise with Republicans, declaring that he is not "wedded to every detail" of his tax-and-spending approach to prevent deep and widespread pain in the new year.
However, he insisted that his re-election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.
"The majority of Americans agree with my approach," said Obama, brimming with apparent confidence in his first White House statement since securing a second term.
The trouble is, though, the Republicans who run the House plainly do not agree with his plans. Speaker John Boehner insisted that raising tax rates as Obama wants "will destroy jobs in America."
So began the "fiscal cliff" political maneuvering that will determine which elected power center -- the White House or the House -- bends more on its promises to voters. The outcome will affect tens of millions of Americans, given that the tax hikes and budgets cuts set to kick in Jan. 1 could spike unemployment and bring on a new recession.
An exhausting campaign barely history, Washington was back quickly to governing on deadline, with agreement on a crucial goal but divisions on how to get there.
Obama invited the top four leaders of Congress to the White House next week for talks, right before he leaves on a diplomatic mission to Asia.
All sides sought to leave themselves wiggle room.
"I don't want to box myself in. I don't want to box anybody else in," Boehner said at the Capitol.
Outside all the new the talk of openness, the same hard lines seemed in place.
Obama never expressly said that tax rates on top earners must return to the higher levels of the Bill Clinton era, leading to speculation that he was willing to soften the core position of his re-election campaign to get a grand debt deal with Republicans. "I'm not wedded to every detail of my plan. I'm open to compromise," he said.
However, his spokesman, Jay Carney, seemed to slam that door. He said Obama would veto any extension Congress might approve of tax cuts on incomes above $250,000.
And outside the private negotiations, a new campaign for public opinion had begun.
Obama's remarks were choreographed so that a diverse-looking group of Americans stood behind him and dozens more were invited to pack the East Room. In the weeks ahead, he plans to pull in the public as a way to pressure Congress.
"I am not going to ask students and seniors and middle class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me, making over $250,000, aren't asked to pay a dime more in taxes. I'm not going to do that," said Obama. He said voters plainly agreed with his approach that both tax hikes and spending cuts are needed to cut the debt.