President Barack Obama sought to recast the November election as a fight over tax fairness Monday, a pitch aimed at painting Republican rival Mitt Romney as a protector of the rich at a time of economic unease. Romney's campaign said the president was trying to draw attention from a limp economic recovery.
Obama's sudden focus on taxes came amid the latest round of grim news for his re-election effort: For the second consecutive month, Romney raised more campaign funds than the president, whose campaign acknowledged in an email to supporters that it is in trouble.
Obama called Monday for extending tax cuts for middle class Americans while allowing a rise in taxes for what he said was the 2 percent of the population earning more than $250,000 a year. Romney supports extending the federal tax cuts, first signed by former President George W. Bush, for all income earners.
The White House is again raising the tax issue with full knowledge that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not accept such a move unless it also includes extending tax cuts for high-income earners.
That is a symptom of the legislative and political gridlock consuming Washington in advance of the November elections. Another example is the plan in the House to vote to remove Obama's health care overhaul from the books. That will be blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate and would be vetoed by Obama even should it pass both houses in Congress.
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.
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.
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.
New numbers released Friday showed America's unemployment rate stuck at 8.2 percent.
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.
Romney has so far refused to release more than two years of tax returns. His 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 New York enclave, 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, Colorado, 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.
Obama's campaign and the Democratic party raised $71 million in June, well below the $106 million hauled in by Romney and the Republican party during the same period.
Obama's campaign said in an email to supporters that June was their best fundraising month of the campaign. But they told supporters, "We still got beat. Handily."