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Four Years Later, Americans Still Back Obama on Taxes

April 13, 2012

Looking back this week at his budget-busting windfall for the wealthy, George W. Bush lamented, "I wish they weren't called the Bush tax cuts." With good reason. After all, the first modern president to cut taxes during war-time, Bush's gravy train for the gilded-class helped double the national debt and produce record income inequality even as job growth flat-lined and family incomes stagnated.
As it turns out, come November Mitt Romney and his Republican allies may come to regret the Bush tax cuts as well. After all, Romney not only wants to make the expiring Bush tax cuts permanent, but wants an additional 20 percent across-the board reduction that would drain the U.S. Treasury while putting millions into his own pocket. Unfortunately for the GOP, President Obama's proposed "Buffett Rule" and continued call for the wealthiest two percent of earners to pay a little more enjoys strong support among the American people.

During the campaign four years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama called for families making over $250,000 a year to return to their Clinton-era of income tax rate of 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent under President Bush. For the other 98 percent, Obama pledged tax relief. By the summer of 2008, Obama consistently outpolled John McCain on the tax issue. That was in part because, as the Washington Post noted at the time:

"Obama's plan gives the biggest cuts to those who make the least, while McCain would give the largest cuts to the very wealthy."

(As it turned out, on Election Day 2008 the affluent voted with their wallets for Barack Obama. Individuals making over $200,000 a year backed Obama over McCain by a 52 to 46 percent margin.)
With his stimulus program in February 2009, President Obama as promised delivered tax relief for 95% of working families. As Steve Benen noted at the time, it was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. But thanks to the jet-engine decibel level of right-wing rage, a cacophony willingly amplified by the media, that accomplishment was drown out. As the New York Times asked just before the 2010 midterm elections, "What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?"

In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.

Republican demagoguery not only helped explain that collective national ignorance, but the Democrats' drubbing at the polls that November. And emboldened by the success of their all-out obstructionism, Congressional Republicans in December 2010 prevented President Obama from delivering on his pledge to let the upper-income Bush tax cuts expire. Worse still, the two year extension of the Bush tax cuts was accompanied by a steep reduction in the estate tax, diverting billions of dollars from Uncle Sam to the heirs of the largest fortunes in America.
Nevertheless, President Obama is running for reelection on platform which calls for fairness in the tax code. In addition to the rollback of the top Bush tax cut rate, Obama is promoting the Buffett Rule which would set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for individuals on their annual income above $1 million.
Once again, the American people are with him. A January CBS/New York Times poll showed that 55 percent of respondents said that the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. (By 52 to 36 percent, they also said capital gains and regular salary/wage income should be taxed at the same rate.) A month later, by a 67 to 27 percent margin Americans responded that "taxes should be increased on households earning one million dollars a year or more." Then in March, a Reuters/Ipsos survey found that the Buffett Rule enjoyed two-to-one backing (64 to 30 percent). As David Rohde noted in The Atlantic, a recent Washington Post/ABC poll showed President Obama's solid advantage with Middle America:

Asked in last week's poll which candidate would do a better job "defending the middle class," Obama had a 10-percentage-point advantage over Romney. Asked which was a bigger problem in America, 52 percent chose "unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy" and only 37 percent said "over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity."

And when it comes to tax policy, the personal is political for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Despite having paid tax rates of 25% and 20.5% over the last two years, President Obama's proposals would increase his own tax bill. In contrast, Mitt Romney paid only 14% on $45 million in income over a two-year span. And as ThinkProgress explained in January, Romney's plan (one which would deliver 60 percent of its benefits to the top one percent of taxpayers) would cut his own tax bill by half, padding his wallet by $4 million a year. (And that analysis was done before Mitt announced his new scheme to try to bribe voters with an across-the-board tax cut scheme.) It's also worth noting the Paul Ryan House GOP budget Romney endorsed would similarly slash taxes for those making over $1 million a year - like Mitt Romney.

And so it goes.
Thus far, early polling from the Washington Post gives President Obama a narrow 3-point edge (45-42) over Mitt Romney on the issue of taxes. But as in 2008, that gap will likely widen. After all, voters are just being introduced to charts like the ones above from Ezra Klein and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which show the shockingly regressive tax policies Republicans are running on.
Just like George W. Bush.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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