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Obama says he's not caving on tax cuts

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
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President Obama on tax cuts
  • Obama says his "number one priority" is preserving tax cuts
  • President seemed to give outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi an unofficial endorsement
  • Obama also comments on his debt commission

For more on President Obama's tour of Asia, check out CNN's White House blog, The 1600 Report.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- President Barack Obama declared Friday that his "number one priority" is preserving tax cuts for the middle class, and sharply denied that comments by his senior adviser David Axelrod suggest that his administration is about to cave in to Republicans who also want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

"That is the wrong interpretation because I haven't had a conversation with Democratic and Republican leaders," Obama said of a Huffington Post article suggesting that in advance of negotiations with lawmakers next week, the White House has calculated that giving in on tax cuts for the rich is the only way to get the middle class cuts extended too.

"Here's the right interpretation -- I want to make sure that taxes don't go up for middle class families starting on January 1st," Obama said at a news conference at the conclusion of the G-20 Summit here. "That is my number one priority for those families and for our economy. I also believe that it would be fiscally irresponsible for us to permanently extend the high income tax cuts. I think that would be a mistake, particularly when we've got our Republican friends saying that their number 1 priority is making sure that we are dealing with our debt and our deficit."

Obama would not tip his hand on the discussions coming when Congress returns to work for a lame-duck session next week.

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"I'm not going to negotiate here in Seoul, my job is to negotiate back in Washington with Democratic and Republican leaders," he said.

The president also seemed to give outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi an unofficial but tacit endorsement in her bid to remain in the Democratic leadership as House minority leader.

Asked by a reporter whether he believes fellow Democrats in Congress should get some "new blood," Obama praised Pelosi as a "outstanding partner" despite some conservative Democrats in Washington griping that she should not stay in power.

"I think what we will naturally see is a whole bunch of talented people rise to the top as they promote good ideas that attract the American people in terms of jobs and investment and how to grow the economy," Obama said. "I think Speaker Pelosi has been an outstanding partner for me" and the White House's agenda.

Obama seemed to be suggesting the party should stay the course by then thanking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) by name as well before concluding, "I'm looking forward to working with the entire leadership team" on behalf of the American people.

For the second straight day, Obama also commented on his debt commission, chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, which released highly-controversial preliminary findings urging major overhauls of programs like Social Security.

"I'm going to study those carefully, consult widely, and see what we can do on the spending side" to make a dent in the deficit, Obama said.

"That is going to be a series of tough conversations," he said of the spending cuts to come.

Obama, who is now wrapping up his 9-day tour of Asia with a final stop in Japan for the APEC economic summit, left Seoul empty-handed on a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea.

The deal bogged because of disputes over whether U.S. beef and U.S. automakers will get a fair crack at the Korean market and its failure to be completed here is a blow to Obama, but the president vowed that he will not be rushed into signing off on a deal that doesn't make sense for the U.S. economy.

"Do we have a deal that works for us? That is my first obligation," said Obama. "It was important to take the extra time so that I am assured" that it will be a success for American workers.

"I'm the one who has to go and sell it to Congress," Obama said in reference to the fact that while business groups are lobbying hard for the deal, organized labor has expressed deep reservations, imperiling ratification down the road even if the administration can clear the first hurdle.

Pressed on the slow pace of the U.S. economic recovery and whether he can promise that Americans will feel noticeable job growth during his first four-year term, Obama noted his administration has had 10 consecutive months of private sector job growth but added that he doesn't have a "crystal ball" about the months ahead.

But he noted that job growth "needs to be speeded up" and he believes his policies will set the right conditions for a turnaround.

"We can chip away at the unemployment rate so that we get back to the kinds of levels that reflect a growing middle class and increased opportunity for all people," he said.

Asked by a reporter if the midterm election has weakened him on the global stage, the president said simply "no" and made the case for a broad communique the G-20 leaders signed on to here at the conclusion of the summit.

The major points of the agreement included the leaders promising to continue focusing on economic growth, trying to correct trade imbalances and high debt, and press forward on financial regulatory reforms to help prevent another financial crisis.

That final agreement, however, kicked the can down the road to next year on finding solutions to fix some of these economic balances so the leaders left here with questions hanging over the summit about whether the promises made have real teeth.

For example on one of the most divisive issues, currency manipulation, China was able broaden that section of the agreement beyond just exchange rates. That forced Obama to simply vow "we will closely watch the appreciation of China's currency," rather than being able to promise specific action.

Ever since he rode into London for his first G-20 Summit as a conquering hero in April 2009, Obama has been dealing with high expectations on the world stage.

At that summit nearly two years ago, with fears of a Great Depression hanging in the air, much of the media coverage focused on whether the charismatic new U.S. president could almost single-handedly save the world's 20 largest economies in a single bound.

It was only after Obama and a series of other leaders did some scrambling that they could finally come to an agreement on a $1 trillion framework to help stimulate the global economy and better police its markets.

Little wonder then that at the 2009 summit's farewell news conference, Obama fended off questions about his own clout by stressing that the world has changed dramatically since the U.S. and Great Britain remade the world's economy on their own in 1944 at Bretton Woods.

"If there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's an easier negotiation," Obama said then. "But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."

"It's an appreciation that, you know, Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse,'' Obama said then. "Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India, these are all countries on the move. And that's good. That means there are millions of people -- billions of people who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.''

On Friday here in Seoul, Obama defended the work of the G-20 by allowing that "instead of hitting home runs" sometimes leaders have to settle for "hitting singles" that are still quite impressive.

As for his own standing on the world stage and his alliances with specific leaders, Obama said, "my relationships have grown much stronger" over time.

Obama also dismissed the notion that diplomacy has grown more difficult for him with his approval ratings dropping back home in recent months, noting that it was not easy when he was "at 65 percent in the polls" early in his presidency.

"It was hard then, it's hard now," Obama said.