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Obama, Romney Clash Repeatedly Over Taxes


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, shared a stage last night for the first time in his presidential campaign. The debate in Denver, moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, focused on domestic policy, which meant there was lots to debate, from health care to energy, though much of the time was devoted to taxes.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Because Romney is trailing the president in the polls, he had a longer to-do list for the debate, and last night he wasted no time checking off his goals. First up, humanize himself. In his opening statement, Romney told anecdotes from the campaign trail to show that he wasn't a heartless rich guy who dismissed 47 percent of Americans as dependent on government handouts.


MITT ROMNEY: I was in Dayton, Ohio, and a woman grabbed my arm, and she said, I've been out of work since May. Can you help me? Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver, and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He's lost his most recent job, and we've now just lost our home. Can you help us? And the answer is yes, we can help, but it's going to take a different path, not the one we've been on.

LIASSON: A path, Romney said, that had devastated small businesses in America.


ROMNEY: I know what it takes to get small business growing again, to hire people. Now, I'm concerned that the path that we're on has just been unsuccessful. The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more, - if you will, trickle-down government - would work. That's not the right answer for America. I'll restore the vitality that gets America working again.

LIASSON: President Obama and Governor Romney clashed repeatedly over taxes, with the president charging that Romney's proposed tax cuts for the wealthy will have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting programs for the middle class.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he's been asked over a hundred times how you would close those deductions and loopholes and he hasn't been able to identify them. But I'm going to make an important point here, Jim.

When you add up all the loopholes and deductions that upper income individuals can - are currently taking advantage of - you take those all away — you don't come close to paying for $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in additional military spending. And that's why independent studies looking at this said the only way to meet Governor Romney's pledge of not reducing the deficit, or not adding to the deficit, is by burdening middle class families. The average middle class family with children would pay about $2,000 more. Now, that's not my analysis; that's the analysis of economists who have looked at this. And that kind of top-down economics, where folks at the top are doing well so the average person making three million bucks is getting a $250,000 tax break while middle class families are burdened further, that's not what I believe is a recipe for economic growth.

JIM LEHRER: What is the difference?

ROMNEY: Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.

LEHRER: All right.

ROMNEY: So if - if the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I'd say absolutely not. I'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I've said is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. That's part one. So there's no economist can say Mitt Romney's tax plan adds five trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan. Number two, I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that, and I know it's a popular things to say with a lot of people, but it's just not the case. Look, I've got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it.

But that is not the case, all right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans. And number three, I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle income families.

LIASSON: Romney and the president were asked to explain their different approaches to cutting the deficit. The president said his plan was balanced, Romney's was not.


OBAMA: You know, when Governor Romney stood on a stage with other Republican candidates for the nomination, and he was asked, would you take $10 of spending cuts for just $1 of revenue, and he said no. Now, if you take such an unbalanced approach, then that means you are going to be gutting our investments in schools and education. It means that Governor Romney talked about Medicaid and how we could send it back to the states, but effectively this means a 30 percent cut in the primary program we help for seniors who are in nursing homes, for kids who are with disabilities...

LEHRER: Mr. President, I'm sorry...

OBAMA: ...and that is not a right strategy for us to move forward.

LIASSON: Romney responded with another attack on the president's record.


ROMNEY: You've been president four years. You said you'd cut the deficit in half. It's now four years later. We still have trillion dollar deficits.

LIASSON: Beyond softening his own image and roughing up the incumbent's, Romney also wanted to come across as a reasonable alternative to the president. He repeated his pledge to replace Obamacare but promised to retain the most popular elements of it. He said he wanted to repeal the Dodd-Frank bank regulation law but promised to keep many of its reforms too. Asked how he would govern at a time of partisan gridlock, Romney presented himself as a moderate bridge builder, not the severe conservative he said he was during the primaries.


ROMNEY: The day after I get elected, I'll sit down with leaders - the Democratic leaders as well as Republican leaders and - as we did in my state. We met every Monday for a couple of hours, talked about the issues and the challenges in our state in that case. We have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we're going to compromise our principle, but because there's common ground and the challenges America faces right now. Look, the reason I'm in this race is there are people that are really hurting today in this country and we face - this deficit could crush the future generations. What's happening in the Middle East - there are developments around the world that are of real concern. And Republicans and Democrats both love America, but we need to have leadership, leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if it's a Republican or a Democrat. I've done it before. I'll do it again.

LEHRER: Mr. President.

OBAMA: First of all, I think Governor Romney's going to have a busy first day because he's also going to repeal Obamacare, which will not be very popular among Democrats as you're sitting down with them.

LIASSON: And, Mr. Obama said, being a leader means having a plan and being able to explain what it is.


OBAMA: What's important is occasionally you got to say no to folks both in your own party and in the other party. And you know, yes, have we had some fights between me and the Republicans when they fought back against us, reining in the excesses of Wall Street? Absolutely, because that was a fight that needed to be had. When we were fighting about whether or not we were going to make sure that Americans had more security with their health insurance and they said no - yes, that was a fight that we needed to have. And so part of leadership and governing is both saying what it that you are for but also being willing to say no to some things. And I've got to tell you, Governor Romney, when it comes to his own party during the course of this campaign, has not displayed that willingness to say no to some of the more extreme parts of his party.

LIASSON: During the debate, Romney seemed more energetic and forceful, and he looked like he was enjoying himself more. The president, by contrast, was less crisp and animated, and he often failed to pursue his own usual lines of attack. He never mentioned Romney's 47 percent comments, his career at Bain Capital, his tax returns, or his positions on immigration or abortion. Last night the instant polls of viewers and the expert analysis produced a consensus that Romney had, quote, "won" the debate. But it won't be clear for several days what impact that will have on the race. Governor Romney and President Obama still have two more chances to debate, at a town hall meeting with voters in New York and a foreign policy debate in Florida. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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