WASHINGTON – Facing sagging jobs numbers, President Barack Obama sought to recast the November election as a fight over tax fairness on Monday, urging tax cut extensions for all families earning less than $250,000 but denying them to households making more than that.
The president's pitch was aimed at painting Republican rival Mitt Romney as a protector of the rich at a time of economic unease, as Democrats intensify efforts to raise questions about the Romney's own wealth and offshore bank accounts.
Romney supports extending the federal tax cuts, first signed by George W. Bush, for all income earners.
Obama said if Congress passes a one-year extension for those making less than $250,000, voters can use the November election to decide the fate of the cuts for higher income earners.
"My opponent will fight to keep them in place. I will fight to end them," said Obama, flanked by a dozen people the White House said would benefit from the tax cut extension.
The president has long supported ending the Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000. The White House and the president's re-election team are reviving his arguments now as a way to suggest that the push by Romney and congressional Republicans for an across-the-board extension of the tax cuts could put America's middle class at risk.
"Let's not hold the vast majority of Americans and our economy hostage while we debate the merits of another tax cut for the wealthy," Obama said at the White House.
The president's sudden focus on the tax fairness debate was also an attempt to change the election subject after yet another lackluster jobs report. New numbers released Friday showed the nation's unemployment rate stuck at 8.2 percent, giving Romney fresh grounds to attack Obama as unfit to steer the U.S. economy.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the president was responding to the bad economic news by calling for a "massive tax increase."
"It just proves again that the president doesn't have a clue how to get America working again and help the middle class," Saul said.
Obama said his proposal was aimed at staving off an end-of-the year stalemate with Congress. But it appeared to have the opposite effect.
Congressional Republicans immediately balked, saying it would be a mistake to raise taxes on anyone while the economy was still struggling to recover. The House GOP plans to make its own push this summer for a full extension of the tax cuts.
Obama said later Monday that he would veto such a bill if it landed on his desk.
Ahead of Obama's remarks on Monday, White House officials consulted with congressional Democrats to shore up support within the party. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of his party's Senate leadership, had both previously advocated extending the cuts to those who make up to $1 million annually, but on Monday they stood in solidarity with the president.
Obama angered many fellow Democrats in 2010 when he signed off on a full extension of the Bush tax cuts, in part to win concessions from Republicans on other legislation.
Extending the tax cuts only for households making below $250,000 would save the government about $800 billion over 10 years compared with extending them for everyone. The full cuts cost the government about $4.5 trillion over a decade.
Economists worry that across-the-board tax increases, along with automatic spending cuts also scheduled to take hold at year's end, could be a blow to the shaky U.S. economy.
About 2.5 million U.S. households had incomes of $250,000 annually or more, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The median household income in 2010 was $49,445.
Romney, whose personal wealth could exceed $250 million, would be among the nation's richest presidents if elected, and the Obama campaign has sought to portray him as disconnected from middle class voters.
Democrats ramped up their calls over the weekend for Romney to release more of his tax returns, which would outline the investments he has lived off of for more than a decade.
"I think what's important if you're running for president is that the American people know who you are, what you've done and that you're an open book," Obama said Monday in an interview with New Hampshire television station WMUR. "And that's been true of every presidential candidate dating back to Mr. Romney's father."
Romney has so far refused to release more than two years of tax returns, breaking from a precedent set by his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who released 12 years of returns when he sought the presidency a generation ago. An Associated Press report recently raised questions about a previously undisclosed Bermuda-based company included in Romney's portfolio until the day before he became Massachusetts governor.
Romney's campaign dismisses the Obama campaign's tactics as an attack on success. And Romney hasn't shown any indications of trying to deny his wealth. He spent Sunday in the Hamptons, the wealthy enclave on Long Island, holding three fundraisers at wealthy donors' homes as protesters stood outside. At the day's third event, at the Southampton estate of billionaire industrialist David Koch, donors were asked to give $50,000 per person or $75,000 per couple.
On Monday, Romney raised money in Aspen, Colo., the resort town where Michelle Obama has vacationed. And he spent the previous week jet skiing and boating on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where he has a lakeside estate worth millions.
While hardly in Romney's league, Obama also is well-off and acknowledges it. At one point Monday, he said that "it's time to let the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, folks like myself, to expire.
The president, too, was mingling with the wealthy on Monday. Hours after calling for increased taxes on higher income earners, he attended two campaign fundraisers in Washington that cost donors $40,000 per person.
The Romney campaign announced Monday that, in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, it raised $106 million in June. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised $71 million.
Kasie Hunt reported from Aspen, Colo. Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed from Washington.
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