The wealthy have weathered recent hard times in far better shape than most Americans. It would be unproductive and unfair to now spare the rich at the expense of working families, veterans and retirees in a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."
But that seems to be the direction we're headed as President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner go down to the wire in their stare-down, waiting to see who blinks first.
The overarching issue is how best to trim $2 trillion or more from projected federal deficits over the next decade how much should come from tax increases, how much from spending cuts, and how to parcel out the pain.
During his re-election campaign, Obama repeatedly promised to protect the middle class. As he correctly notes, the middle class took a huge hit during the recession, and strengthening and expanding the middle class is the key to America's future prosperity.
He shouldn't back down so easily now.
Today, the GOP majority in the House is expected to push through Boehner's "Plan B," which calls for raising taxes only on those with income of more than $1 million a year. That unacceptably prolongs a tax break for the rich while increasing the burden on everyone else. Obama has rightly threatened to veto the measure.
But in search of compromise, the president is making too many significant concessions.
He is offering to increase taxes only on annual incomes above $400,000, affecting only the 1.1 million highest earners less than the top 1 percent. That conflicts with his campaign pledge to let taxes to rise on income of $200,000 or more a year for individuals and $250,000 or more for married couples, while extending the Bush presidency's tax cuts for everyone else.
Obama is also relenting on his insistence to extend the payroll tax holiday, which has boosted the take-home pay of nearly every worker for the last two years by reducing how much in Social Security taxes they pay. About 160 million Americans have been getting an average of $1,000 a year in extra cash.
And the White House is acceding to a Republican demand to reduce the federal government's cost-of-living formula. That would save about $225 billion over the next decade, with more than half the savings coming out of Social Security checks. The change would also cut benefits for veterans and disabled people.
There is also talk of limiting the popular mortgage interest deduction. Now, homeowners can deduct interest paid on mortgage debt of as much as $1 million on a primary home and a second home, as well as $100,000 in home equity loan debt. One proposal would reduce the limit to $500,000 for a primary residence and eliminate the tax break on second homes.
Supporters of the status quo, including the California Association of Realtors, argue that doing away with the deduction for vacation homes would somehow undermine the American dream of homeownership.
That is a stretch. The focus should be on preserving the benefit for homes where people actually live, not keeping a perk of the rich.
Understandably, the president wants to get a deal done well before the new year, when the Bush-era tax cuts expire and drastic spending cuts kick in a double blow to the economy that could very well send us into another recession.
Obama, however, can't accept any agreement, nor should he.
By handing him a second term, the American people also gave him the duty to fix the budget mess in Washington without hurting the middle class. To keep faith, he has to follow through.