Obama's Middle-Class Tax Pledge in Question as Deficit Challenge Looms

The Obama administration once again is sparking speculation that the president may break a key campaign pledge, after he was quoted saying he is "agnostic" about raising taxes on those making less than $250,000.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that President Obama made the comment in an interview discussing ways to rein in the soaring federal deficit.

The president's apparent inclination to keep all options on the table, though, stands in stark contrast to the string of pledges he made during the campaign to shield households making less than $250,000 from any tax.

"Let me be clear -- if you are a family making less than $250,000 a year ... you will not see your taxes go up," he said in July 2008 at a Springfield, Mo., town hall meeting -- it was a statement he repeated across the country.

So is the president abandoning his promise? The White House insists the answer is no. Aides say Obama is merely giving a deficit reduction commission he will soon establish room to maneuver.

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    "The president doesn't believe our economic growth ... should be predicated on raising taxes on middle-class families. But that being said, the president's just not going to get in the game of prejudging the outcome of a commission," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday when asked about the "agnostic" remark.

    Even so, it sounds more and more like Obama is girding for some very tough budgetary choices ahead.

    "The reality of our fiscal challenge is not subject to interpretation. Math is not partisan," Obama told reporters Tuesday during a surprise press conference.

    This isn't the first the time the durability of Obama's middle-class tax promise has come into question.

    Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top White House economist Larry Summers stirred fears of its demise last summer. At the time, Geithner said in a Sunday-show interview that the nation would have to "do what it takes," while Summers said the country should not "rule things out no matter what." Those comments were made in discussions about how the government could control the deficit and pay for health care reform.

    The budget outlook may seem even more dire now. Obama on Friday signed a law raising the debt limit to $14.3 trillion, days after sending Congress a budget with a deficit of $1.3 trillion.

    Budget experts say these numbers may crush the president's middle-class pledge.

    Maya McGuinness, with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said Obama can't take any option "off the table" as he examines the immensity of the budget-balancing challenge and realizes that every part of the budget will have to be part of the solution.

    But backing off his tax pledge is a big political risk. Former President George H.W. Bush infamously declared, "Read my lips -- no new taxes," during the 1988 presidential campaign, and then raised them three years later as part of a budget deal with Democrats.

    Former President Bill Clinton beat him in 1992, promising "an America in which middle-class incomes, not middle-class taxes, are going up."

    One year later, Clinton raised gasoline taxes and Social Security taxes on the middle class and raised income taxes on couples earning more than $140,000.

    The White House points out that Obama cut taxes for the middle class last year. The real flip-flopping, aides say, can be found with the seven Senate Republicans who co-sponsored a debt and deficit reduction commission only to recently vote against it -- forcing Obama to unilaterally create one.

    Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.