In an extended television interview with Bloomberg News Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the "potential" for a deal to avoid the looming fiscal cliff remains, but that House Speaker John Boehner's initial offer is "still out of balance."
"The issue right now that's relevant is the acknowledgement that if we're going to raise revenues that are sufficient to balance with very tough cuts that we've already made and the further reforms in entitlements that I'm prepared to make, that we're going to have to see the rates on the top two percent go up and we're not going to be able to get a deal without it," the president said.
Pushing back against claims that this insistence on raising tax rates for wealthier Americans is "stubborn" or "partisan," Obama told Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman that his position is "just a matter of math."
"What I'm going to need, what the country needs, what the business community needs, in order to get to where we need to be is an acknowledgement that folks like me can afford to pay a little bit higher rate if we combine that with a tax reform process and entitlement reform, then we can get to a $4 trillion deficit reduction package that actually helps our economy grow rather than weakens our economy either in the short term or the long term," Obama said.
Asked if he would accept raising tax rates on the top 2% to a point slightly lower than the 39.6% rate they would automatically return to if the Bush-era tax rates were allowed to expire, the president demurred. Finding some savings in federal entitlement programs and allowing rates on high-income earners to increase at the end of 2012 is just the first step in a process, he said.
The second step would be a more specific discussion to hammer out the details of comprehensive tax and entitlement reform. In the president's scenarios, this second step would occur by late 2013, and he signaled a willingness to bring rates back down at that time if such a move was accompanied by a simplification of the tax code.
"Within that framework I am happy to be flexible," Obama said. "I recognize I'm not going to get a hundred percent, but what I'm not going to do is to agree to a plan in which we have some revenue that is vague and potentially comes out of the pockets of middle class families in exchange for some very specific and tough entitlement cuts."
Obama's first interview since securing re-election came the day after members of Congress were invited to the White House for a holiday party Monday night. Various sources told CNN that Obama and Boehner didn't speak at the annual social event, but the president dismissed the suggestion that this is a symbol of the status of his relationship with the Republicans' chief negotiator.
"Speaker Boehner and I speak frequently," Obama said. "I don't think that the issue right now has to do with sitting in a room."
The president also addressed a few personnel issues, saying he'd "love" to bring more business leaders into his administration over the next four years, but an increasingly onerous Senate confirmation process has been an obstacle to recruitment.
"For successful folks to want to put themselves through that process - a lot of folks are just shying away," Obama said. "You have to put your life on hold. You may end up getting caught up in some partisan battle up on the Hill that has nothing to do with your own qualifications."
The president later recognized that his relationship with the business community "sometimes was skewed" during his first term, but he said that working with CEOs to expand private-sector growth across the board would continue to be a priority.
And on the controversial issue of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's potential nomination to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, the president said he hasn't been influenced by the public debate.
"I don't really spend a lot of time on what folks say on cable news programs attacking highly-qualified personnel like Susan Rice," the president said. "I'm going to make a decision about who's going to be the best secretary of state."