When is a pledge not a pledge?

When Obama says it on the campaign trail, apparently

This morning at a Manhattan breakfast sponsored by Thomson Reuters, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag threw that pledge out the window. Instead, he described Obama’s “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge as a “stance” and a “preference” that is subject to study by the president’s newly formed bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility.

“The president has been very clear about what he prefers,” Orszag said under questioning from Thomson Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland. “That was his stance during the campaign, and he still believes that’s the right course forward. But he has also been very clear that we shall let the commission go do its work.”

Freeland followed up, asking if that means the White House might be open to the idea. “Perhaps here’s some give there?”

“I don’t feel like I’m in a position to say that there will be any give there,” Orszag parried. “But the president has been very clear that the commission should go explore whatever options they all deem to be appropriate.”

Later on during the breakfast, Orszag resisted my attempts to pin him down when I asked if the White House could live with a tax increase on the middle class.

“No, I didn’t say that,” he answered. “What I did say is look, the typical thing that’s going to happen, and it’s already been happening, is everyone is going to come along with this idea—the value added tax, this thing under $250,000, Social Security, Medicare changes, what have you—and you’re looking for us to say no, yes, no, yes, no, yes—which will mean that the commission has absolutely nothing to talk about and nothing to do. The president has been very clear that we’re not going to play that game.”

Hmm, I could have sworn  . . . Nah, he must have said “preference” back in 2008.  That pledge business just sounds like something Glenn Beck would have told us.  And yet,

Q: Can you make an absolute, read-my-lips pledge that there will be no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year?

CLINTON: I will let the taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year go back to the rates that they were paying in the 1990s.

Q: Senator Obama, would you take the same pledge? No tax increases on people under $250,000?

OBAMA: I not only have pledged not to raise their taxes, I’ve been the first candidate in this race to specifically say I would cut their taxes. We are going to offset the payroll tax, the most regressive of our taxes, so that families who are middle-income individuals making $75,000 a year or less, that they would get a tax break so that families would see up to $1,000 worth of relief.

Q: You both have now just taken this pledge on people under $250,000 and $200,000.

OBAMA: Well, it depends on how you calculate it. But it would be between $200,000 and $250,000.

So, here’s my direction for 2012.  Every promise that candidate Obama makes, and you know that he’s going to make a lot of them, needs to be followed immediately by strong questioning as to whether this pledge is actually a pledge, or whether it is a  preference that is kind of  like a pledge, but at the same time completely different.

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