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A Taxing Choice

November 4, 2011

In my National Journal column this week, I touch on the debate among Democrats about whether President Obama's increasingly populist message - particularly his emphasis on asking wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes, both to reduce the deficit and to fund his jobs program - risks the party's support with white-collar white voters who have become increasingly critical to its electoral coalition.

In the column, Mark Penn, the initial chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary campaign and pollster for Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, expressed the fears of those who worry that Obama will drive away upper white-collar whites who have moved toward the Democrats over the past two decades. By making higher taxes on the wealthy "such a big part of his solution, [Obama] is in fact just splitting his coalition," Penn insisted.

At a National Journal conference this week previewing the 2012 election, Geoff Garin, who succeeded Penn atop Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008, expressed the opposite view during a panel I moderated. "This label of populism ignores the reality of the conversation that's going on and the positions that President Obama represents in the debate," Garin said. "You know, it's only about 75 percent of the public that supports a millionaire's tax. The Republicans can have the other 25 percent. We'll take the 75."

This dispute marks one of the critical strategic decisions Obama faces. It revolves around a straightforward question: will upper middle-class voters believe that Obama is targeting them when he talks about asking more from the rich, or will they share the sense that people on the very top rungs of the economic ladder have gotten off too easy and need to contribute more? Recent volumes of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll published in National Journal Daily offer some insight on the dispute-and some support for each side's argument.

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