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The Tax Gamble

Barack Obama is defying history and betting that Mitt Romney’s position on taxes is a loser. For the moment, the vilification is bad dinner theater.

Jujitsu master? Obama turns tax issue on its head.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Where’s the villain?

When you scrape away the accumulating angst among Democrats—particularly liberal Democrats—about President Obama’s reelection message, the plaintive cry is for an economic villain. As they look at the next few months, liberals fear that voters eager to hear a clarion call from the president will instead hear only the reedy squeak of To Do list pleading.

Democrats who once felt confident, nay, virtually certain about Obama’s reelection prospects now fear Mitt Romney is on the verge of harnessing the change zeitgeist. When Romney says the American people are “tired of being tired,” knowledgeable and experienced Democratic hands wince. Polling data and focus groups echo the sentiment. Voters are weary, and the weary tend to move against the incumbent.


For liberals, the question is: Villain or Vanilla? And they are convinced that Obama’s current economic message—which they view as a garbled mélange of slogans—“Recovery summer,” “An economy built to last,” “Winning the future,” “Forward,” and now “Break the stalemate”—is as plain as you can get.

And yet, as ever, the White House and Obama’s team remain stubbornly placid and outwardly confident they have the proper villain in their sights: taxes.

Obama is convinced that he’s not only on top of the tax debate, but that it will reelect him. Every Republican since Ronald Reagan (with the exception of George H.W. Bush) has used the tax issue to torment Democrats. But Obama believes he can be the tax tormentor-in-chief, using it as a jujitsu move against Romney and the Republicans.

How? By framing every economic issue as a tax issue.

The most biting part of Obama’s largely forgettable “break the stalemate” speech in Ohio last week was on the role of tax cuts in the Bush years and, if there are any, in the Romney years.

“From 2001 to 2008, we had the slowest job growth in half a century,” Obama said. “The typical family saw their incomes fall.”

Translation: Tax cuts, even those the middle class gets to taste, don’t create jobs or stimulate economic growth.

Obama then attempted to savage Romney’s economic blueprint.

“About 70 percent of this new, $5 trillion tax cut would go to folks making over $200,000 a year,” Obama said. “And folks making over a million dollars a year would get an average tax cut of about 25 percent.”

It once appeared that Obama’s use of Romney’s career at Bain Capital was solely an attempt to portray his opponent as an economic predator. It still is, but the tax issue is also tracing fire in that same fight. Bain benefited wealthy investors at the cost of some workers. Romney’s tax cuts benefit the wealthy disproportionately to the middle class. It’s the same debate.

A raft of polling data appears to reinforce this core Obama belief. The most recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll showed only 26 percent of those surveyed wanted all of the Bush-era tax cuts (those affecting marginal rates, dividends, and capital gains) extended for any duration. Eighteen percent wanted all of the tax cuts to expire; 8 percent wanted the tax cuts extended for only one year; and 28 percent wanted them extended permanently for families earning less than $250,000. Just 18 percent of respondents wanted them extended permanently—Romney’s position.

Similarly, a mid-April CBS News/New York Times poll found that 56 percent of all voters (and 57 percent of independents) said the “best way to promote economic growth” was to raise taxes on the wealthy and “spend more on education and the nation’s infrastructure.” A CNN/ORC poll conducted around the same time found 68 percent of voters (and 67 percent of independents) agreed “the tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to the ordinary working man or woman.”

These polls are rigidly consistent with every internal Obama campaign poll and the overwhelming reaction of focus groups. With an assurance that may startle hand-wringing Democrats, Team Obama doesn’t believe the campaign has been fully joined and Romney has not been remotely tested on his fidelity to GOP tax orthodoxy. Obama and his top advisers are certain—and they exude airy nonchalance in the face of intra-party vapors to prove it—that Romney is the perfect vessel for their tax-villainy argument.

Of course, none of these polls test the Republican riposte: “Obama says he just wants to tax the wealthy, but he’s coming after everyone. You can’t trust him to draw a bright line that spares you and your family because he loves government and he loves taxes.” This leaves aside the other GOP adage: “Don’t tax the entrepreneurs and successful who help drive the economy.”

And you thought vaudeville was dead.

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