Sounding every bit like the candidate he is, President Barack Obama called Monday for a one-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts on annual income up to $250,000, while letting those that chiefly benefit the very wealthy expire on schedule at year's end. The proposal reignited an election-year fight designed to polish his credentials as a champion for middle-class Americans.
"It's time to let the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, folks like myself, to expire," he said in the East Room of the White House, surrounded by people he warned could see a $2,200 jump in their tax bill if the rates expire. "I'm not proposing anything radical here," he insisted, casting the move as a return to the tax rates in force under President Bill Clinton, who presided over an era of robust job growth.
Obama's announcement echoed his core campaign message on the economy, the top issue on voters' minds. He did not refer to Mitt Romney by name, but tried to make the debate over the upper-bracket tax cuts central to the election.
"The fate of the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans will be decided by the outcome of the next election. My opponent will fight to keep them in place, I will fight to end them," he said. "The American people are with me on this." Obama aides say they hope that the "tax fairness" argument will win over voters struggling in the fitful economy three and a half years after he took office vowing to fix it.
With national unemployment at 8.2 percent and little relief expected between now and Nov. 6, the Obama campaign has sought to convince struggling Americans that he has their best interests at heart. He has urged voters to see the election as a choice between his approach and Romney's, not as a referendum on his record.
The White House and Congress will face the issue in earnest after the election, with the expiration looming. But even before Obama spoke, Republicans declared it dead on arrival.
"President Obama is still asleep at the switch when it comes to our economy and jobs," Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that mocked the initiative as " quixotic."
"How will these small business tax hikes create jobs? Even Democratic congressional leaders and former President Clinton have turned their back on this proposal," Boehner said. That was an apparent reference to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer's call for extending the tax cuts that affect income below $1 million.
Mitt Romney's campaign also blasted the proposal, with spokeswoman Andrea Saul calling it "a massive tax increase" and saying "it proves again that the president doesn't have a clue how to get America working again and help the middle class."
"Unlike President Obama, Governor Romney understands that the last thing we need to do in this economy is raise taxes on anyone," Saul said in a statement emailed to reporters.