President Barack Obama will not extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, even temporarily, past their Jan. 1 expiration, the White House said Wednesday as it coped with the fallout from comments by former President Bill Clinton.
"We should not extend—and he will not extend—the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the American people. It's bad policy, it's bad for the economy, it's bad for our fiscal picture," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Asked whether that applied to a short-term extension, Carney did not hide his irritation: "He will not—could I be more clear?—he will not support extension of the upper-income Bush tax cuts."
Carney's forceful declaration came after delighted Republicans seized on Clinton's remarks in an interview with CNBC in which he seemed to suggest that the Bush tax cuts, set to expire at year's end, be temporarily extended, which would be a sharp break from Obama. "They will probably have to put everything off until early next year," Clinton told CNBC. "That's probably the best thing to do right now. But the Republicans don't want to do that unless he agrees to extend the tax cuts permanently, including for upper income people, and I don't think the president should do that."
The White House spokesman also sought to turn the tables on Republicans, asking whether they will "force a tax hike on 98 percent of tax-paying Americans because they're holding them hostage to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans."
Carney also bristled when asked about Clinton's comment during the CNBC interview that "there's a recession"—which is defined as two quarters of negative economic growth. "You can cherry-pick the words that he said," the spokesman said.
But Clinton "also referred to the current expansion. We understand—you know, you work for a news service that does a lot of economic analysis—expansion means economic growth, it is the opposite of recession," Carney said.
The offices of Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as the Republican National Committee, blasted those ambiguous words to reporters, saying that Clinton was lining up behind their position and breaking with the president.
A few hours later, Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna issued a statement on the interview meant to clarify the remarks. "On extending the Bush tax cuts, as President Clinton has said many times before, he supported extending all of the cuts in 2010 as part of the budget agreement, but does not believe the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans should be extended again," McKenna said.
"In the interview, he simply said that he doubted that a long-term agreement on spending cuts and revenues would be reached until after the election," he said.
But Boehner on Wednesday used Clinton's comments as a club to beat up Obama on the economy—and mocked the former president in the process.
"Extending all of the current tax rates for at least a year is really important if we're going to help job creators gain a little more confidence and put Americans back to work. Even Bill Clinton came out for it—before he was against it," Boehner told reporters.
Carney pointed reporters back to McKenna's statement, which he said "made abundantly clear there is no daylight between President Clinton and President Obama."
The confrontation is sure to continue in the Senate and House of Representatives. Democrats have indicated they will push for a vote on extending only the lower-bracket tax cuts. Republicans have signaled they plan to hold a vote on extending all of the rates.