Washington (CNN) - This week the White House got more than it could have hoped for in the payroll tax cut extension showdown.
Republicans handed President Barack Obama an opportunity to turn his jobs campaign narrative into a real-life drama.
Since September when the president delivered his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress, he's been trying to sell a twofold message:
One - as president he's fighting for "working Americans."
Or, as he said on September 22: "I'm a warrior for the middle class" and "I'm happy to fight for working Americans."
Two - Congress is in his words "dysfunctional," standing in the way of policy that could improve the economy.
That's the message but the reality looked different. From the outside it appeared as though the president has been locked in battle with Congress with all sides deserving blame.
This week it was House Republicans on one side and the president on the other standing with working Americans. Literally.
Thursday the White House invited "regular Americans" to flank Obama as he asked House Republicans to just let them have their forty dollars per paycheck. (Forty dollars is the amount the average American would see missing from his or her paycheck were the payroll tax cut not extended in the new year.)
"It may be that there's some folks in the House who refuse to vote for this compromise because they don't think that forty bucks is a lot of money. But anyone who knows what it's like to stretch a budget knows that at the end of the week or the month, forty dollars can make all the difference in the world," the president said.
Then he went on to tell the sympathetic stories of Americans who count on that money. Like Richard from Rhode Island who says forty dollars is what it costs him to buy home heating oil. Obama read from Richard's letter, "If someone doesn't think that twelve gallons of heating oil is important, I invite them to spend three nights in an unheated home. Or you can believe me when I say that it makes a difference."
Republicans want to remind the American people that the president has contributed to the gridlock in Washington. In a statement endorsing the deal Speaker John Boehner accepted, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that "the only reason we are even discussing an extension of temporary measures like the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance is (the President's) own failure to turn our nation's economy around." And he said "the President's statements castigating House Republicans have thus amounted to the kind of unhelpful political opportunism Americans are tired of."
Ultimately Obama will be judged on economy. The White House knows that.
But with the payroll tax fight, Republicans handed the president a surprise opportunity to play a role his aides want him to play during the campaign: champion of the middle class.