Obama challenges GOP on tax breaks at press conference


President Obama cast ongoing negotiations over raising the nation’s debt ceiling in moral terms Wednesday, asking if Republican members of Congress are prepared to deprive students of college scholarships or compromise food safety inspections in order to preserve tax breaks to wealthy oil companies and owners of private jets.

The president used an East Room news conference to gain leverage in difficult discussions with Republican leaders, who’ve balked at proposals to pare the deficit by raising tax revenue. Obama called for an approach in which each side compromises en route to a deal that would clear aside opposition to lifting the nation’s $14.3-trillion debt limit by an Aug. 2 deadline.

“Democrats have to accept some painful spending cuts that hurt some of our constituents … and we’ve shown a willingness to do that for the greater good,’’ the president said.


He said Republicans have not negotiated in the same spirit. Instead, they’ve eschewed a “balanced’’ plan in favor of deep spending cuts that would protect tax breaks for wealthy constituents, he said.

“If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done.’’

Negotiations hit an impasse last week when top Republicans pulled out of deficit reduction talks with Vice President Joe Biden, saying that the White House’s insistence on tax increases amounted to a deal-killer.

Obama is now directly engaged in the talks, which are crucial to a vote on raising the debt limit. Many members of Congress say they won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling absent major reductions in the nation’s deficits. Should the U.S. fail to raise the cap, the Obama administration said the U.S. would default on its debt, with catastrophic implications for the nation’s bond rating and its status as an economic superpower.

Obama painted a stark image of the winners and losers under the debt deal favored by Republicans. Oil companies that are already making money “hand over fist,’’ he said, would continue to receive taxpayer subsidies while “a bunch of kids out there are not getting college scholarships.’’

Medical research would be undermined and food inspection would be weakened if the Republicans pursue their “maximalist position,’’ the president said.

“If you’re a wealthy CEO or hedge fund manager in America right now your taxes are lower than they have ever been,’’ Obama said. “They’re lower than they’ve been since the 1950s, and you can afford it. You’ll still be able to ride on your corporate jet. You just have to pay a little more.’’

He added: “It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is. But we’ve got to make tough choices here to reduce our deficit.’’

He urged Congress to spurn vacations if necessary and stay in Washington to continue negotiations. He said he wants to avoid the brinksmanship surrounding the negotiations in the spring to stave off a government shutdown.

Personalizing the issue, Obama noted that his two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, manage to get their homework done in time. If they can do it, so can Congress, he said.

He added that he’s stuck around town.

“I’ve been here,’’ he said. “I’ve been doing Afghanistan and [Osama]bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let’s get it done.’’

Obama held the news conference at a moment when the economy appears stagnant. The next monthly jobs report is due July 8, but there was widespread disappointment in a report covering the month of May, which showed unemployment had edged up to 9.1%. Employers added only 54,000 new jobs that month, less than half the number needed to keep pace with population growth.

The price of gas has dropped over the past month, but a gallon of unleaded still averages $3.54 -- 28% higher than one year ago.

All this has taken a toll on Obama’s job approval numbers. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Wednesday showed that only 39% approve of Obama’s management of the economy, compared to 52% who disapprove.

Political analysts from both parties said the economy trumps every other issue in the 2012 election. And Republicans hope to make the race a referendum on Obama’s record when it comes to job creation. Speaking to reporters this week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus rejected Obama’s optimistic take on the nation’s economic course.

“This isn’t a bump in the road or a turnaround, but a three-year-long trend of failed economic policies that are quite frankly bankrupting the greatest nation on the face of the earth,’’ Priebus said.