In politics as elsewhere perception is often reality. Which would seem to be the problem for House Republicans right about now in their battle to win the message war with Democrats in the fight over how to extend the payroll-tax holiday past the end of the year.
The stalemate deepened Tuesday with the House GOP rejecting a Senate bill that would have extended the tax holiday for two months, giving Republican and Democratic negotiators more time to work on a longer-term solution.
House Republicans said they rejected the Senate legislation because they preferred a one-year extension.
For the present impasse to work to the political advantage of House Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and the members of his Congress would have to convince enough of the public that it's Republicans, not Democrats, who are more concerned about the taxes middle-class Americans pay.
The challenge for House Republicans, however, is that the notion that the GOP cares more about middle-class concerns than Democrats runs counter to what many Americans believe.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, for instance, asked respondents who does a better job "protecting the middle class," President Obama versus Republicans. Obama topped the GOP by 15 percentage points, 50 percent to 35 percent.
Obama is obviously trying to build on that advantage by putting the economic plight of the middle class, including the deteriorating economic position of many families, at the center of his evolving 2012 re-election campaign strategy.
In a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room Tuesday after the House voted the Senate bill down, the president made sure to hit just the right note to send the message that he felt the pain of middle-class Americans in a way Republicans apparently didn't:
OBAMA: "I saw today that one of the House Republicans referred to what they're doing as, "high-stakes poker." He's right about the stakes, but this is not poker, this is not a game — this shouldn't be politics as usual. Right now, the recovery is fragile, but it is moving in the right direction.
"Our failure to do this could have effects not just on families but on the economy as a whole. It's not a game for the average family, who doesn't have an extra 1,000 bucks to lose.
"It's not a game for somebody who's out there looking for work right now, and might lose his house if unemployment insurance doesn't come through. It's not a game for the millions of Americans who will take a hit when the entire economy grows more slowly because these proposals aren't extended."
Boehner also spoke after the House rejected the Senate legislation and his comments were a sharp contrast with Obama's. It contained none of the pathos of the average family losing $1,000 if payroll taxes rise or someone losing a house if the unemployment insurance extension that is part of the Senate package wasn't approved.
Instead, as if to underscore the problem Boehner may face in getting the House Republican message across, the speaker focused on congressional process.
Boehner said House Republicans wanted Obama to urge the Democratic-controlled Senate, whose members have largely left Washington for the holidays, to return to negotiate the one-year extension the House GOP is insisting on:
BOEHNER: "And we also understand the Senate passed a different bill. We oppose that bill because the two-month extension will create more uncertainty for job creators in our country when millions of Americans are out of work.
"The payroll processing companies say that the Senate bill is unworkable and so complex that many Americans may not even get the tax credit.
"So today we have voted to go to a formal conference to resolve the differences between the two bills. This is a system that our founders gave us. It's as old as our nation and as clear as the Constitution. Our House GOP negotiators are here and ready to work with their counterparts in the Senate to resolve the differences as quickly as possible. Our negotiators are Kevin Brady, David Camp, Renee Ellmers, Nan Hayworth, Tom Price, Tom Reed, Fred Upton and Greg Walden.
"Now, it's up to the president to show real leadership."
The House GOP's perception problem was compounded by the Senate Republicans who, in the very partisan Senate, voted in their dozens for the two-months extension. Thirty nine GOP senators joined 50 Democrats to pass the extension with an 89-10 vote.
Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican facing a tough re-election challenge, was quoted in the Boston Globe's Political Intelligence blog with harsh words for the House Republicans' actions. An excerpt:
"The Massachusetts Republican called the House GOP's opposition 'irresponsible and wrong.'
" 'I appreciate their effort to extend these measures for a full year, but a two-month extension is a good deal when it means we avoid jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of American families,' Brown said."
So the House GOP doesn't even have the political cover that would come from a unified congressional front in Congress. That some Senate Republicans are openly criticizing their House counterparts likely will make it harder for Boehner to persuade middle-class voters that House Republicans are on their side.