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President Obama avoided being "perfectly clear" today about whether he would veto an extension of all the Bush tax cuts if it came to his desk. The president's preferred course is to raise the current tax rate for the wealthy and leave it as is for the middle class. In an inventive rhetorical stretch, Obama refers to his gracious willingness not to hike taxes dramatically on certain segments of the population, "middle-class tax relief."
STEPHANOPOULOS: How deep is your commitment to this fight? Are you saying that if Congress passes a short term extension of all the tax cuts, you're gonna veto it?
OBAMA: George, here's what … I'm saying is that we've got a fundamental choice about this economy. You can't have Republicans running on fiscal discipline that we're gonna reduce our deficit, that the debt's out of control, and then borrow tens, hundreds of billions of dollars to give tax cuts to people who don't need them. (crosstalk)
STEPHANOPOULOS: --everyone else, though. You don't propose a way to pay for those.
OBAMA: Look, the reason is because those folks, as I said over the last decade, at the time when the Republicans were in charge, didn't see a wage increase. Did not see their incomes go up at a time when their costs for health care, for college tuition, for everything else was going up. So, they are just barely keeping their heads above water. The one group that actually saw their incomes increase substantially when … Republicans were in charge, were the top two percent of Americans. The folks who saw the biggest jump were the top one tenth of one percent of Americans.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that mean you will veto an extension of tax cuts to the wealthy?
OBAMA: What I am saying is that if we are going to add to our deficit by $35 billion, $95 billion, $100 billion, $700 billion, if that's the Republican agenda, then I've got a whole bunch of better ways to spend that money.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're not saying you're gonna veto it.
OBAMA: I, there are a whole bunch better ways to spend the money.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How come you don't want to say veto?
OBAMA: There are a whole bunch better ways to spend the money.
One imagines Obama could always find "better ways" to spend money than letting the people who earned it keep it. After all, as he is wont to note and does again in this interview, he "happen[s] to be the President of the United States."
Obama is also asked to respond to the recommendation of his former budget director Peter Orszag who suggested a compromise that would allow the current rates to stay in place for two years, at which point they'd go up. Rep. John Boehner, during Obama's trip to his home state of Ohio, said he'd take that compromise, along with a freeze of 2008 spending levels.
Obama dismissed Orszag's suggestion, made in his inaugural column for the New York Times. White House officials, busy pushing back on Orszag's pitch, told reporters Tuesday they got no heads-up about what he was writing. Ouch.
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- are calling for this. You know, your own budget director up until a month ago, Peter Orszag wrote in the New York Times yesterday that it was a good compromise.
OBAMA: No, what … Peter Orszag said was he'd like to eliminate all these tax cuts, but that politically the best you may be able to do is to get the Republicans to agree to only extend them for two years.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said it was a good compromise. He said it made sense.
OBAMA: But what … we know is this. We're prepared to give the middle class, who haven't seen a wage increase, haven't seen incomes increased, who are most likely to spend any tax cut and recirculate in the economy to help grow the economy. We're prepared to do that right now. And what they are saying is that we're going to borrow $700 billion, despite the fact that they say they're concerned about the deficit, in order to provide a tax break to folks who don't need it. That's something we can't afford.
Obama also took time in the short interview to blame Bush. He blamed his popularity plummet on a mix of mere communication problems and voter "frustration" with the economy, instead of deep disillusionment with his policies and ideology. And, he of course, answered sensitively and endearingly to the incredible softball about whether mean GOP rhetoric affects his daughters and how he protects them.
Remember when the press was concerned in '08 about how people calling Sarah Palin a barely fit mother and imbecile who burned books when she wasn't faking the birth of her last child affected Piper Palin? Yeah, me neither.