© 2024 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

4 Reasons Obama Keeps Pushing Buffett Rule

President Obama, with millionaires and their assistants, makes a point on the "Buffett Rule" in Washington, DC, Wednesday, April 11, 2012.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
President Obama, with millionaires and their assistants, makes a point on the "Buffett Rule" in Washington, DC, Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

For President Obama, the Buffett Rule is the political equivalent of a Swiss army knife, a tool he clearly intends to use any number of ways as he fights to be re-elected and deny the White House to Republican Mitt Romney.

From the Democrats' perspective, the proposed rule, which would require that superwealthy taxpayers with at least $1 million in taxable income after deductions, pay taxes at a minimum 30 percent rate, has so much going for it, they can hardly stop talking about it.

Which explains why Obama touted the rule at a campaign-style event in Florida Tuesday and again at the White House Wednesday, and why Senate Democrats plan to bring the rule up for a vote soon even though it has no chance of passage.

For Obama and fellow Democrats, what's not to like? First, polls indicate a majority of Americans support as a matter of fairness the idea of the richest Americans paying more in taxes, the concept at the very heart of the Buffett Rule.

It was, after all, billionaire investor Warren Buffett who in recent years has publicly decried the unfairness of a system that lets him, one of the world's richest men, to pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary, all because the federal government taxes income from certain investments at a much lower rate than it taxes income from work.

Second, for Obama and his fellow Democrats, the Buffett Rule is a chance to put Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, on the defensive.

The rule can be used by Democrats to underscore their message that not only is Romney very rich but that he also can't relate to the concerns of the average voter.

It's another opportunity to get the news media to focus on the fact that in 2010 Romney and his wife Ann paid a 13.9 percent tax rate on $27 million of taxable income. That was a much lower rate than that paid by many middle class Americans and below the 26.3 percent rate Obama paid on $1.7 million in taxable income in 2010.

Considering the purpose to which Democrats are putting it, they could just as easily refer to the rule as the "the buffet (as in pummel) Romney rule."

Third, it allows Obama and other Democrats to paint Republican politicians as much more unreasonable and unwilling to compromise on the issue of increasing taxes than voters generally.

Fourth, the Buffett Rule debate allows Obama to fire up his progressive base, for whom the issue of income inequality is a priority.

So the Buffett Rule fight, at first blush, would seem to have more upside potential as an issue for Obama and Democrats than for Romney and his fellow Republicans.

Peter Fenn, head of Fenn Communications Group, a well-known media consultant to Democratic campaigns, sees the Buffett Rule discussion as important if only one part of the Obama campaign's overall stress on the need to correct the tilt in the economy towards the superrich:

"If it's done right, it puts Obama, I think, squarely fighting for average wage earners and that's exactly where he needs to be."

Fenn said his sense was that many Americans, including many Republicans, feel that the benefits to the super wealthy had gotten so far our of whack that something had to be done.

He thinks the president has made a good start on driving home his message:

"I thought the (Ossawatomie) Kansas speech led it off well when he talked about the deck being stacked against middle-class Americans for the last ten years.

"I do think the Democrats and Obama have to understand that they've got to make this contrast between the Romney approach and style and policies and the Obama approach and style and policies really clear to people. Because the negatives are just going to be wicked. Romney will turn his fire from Santorum to Obama real fast and these guys (Republican campaign operatives) know what they're doing."

As for the Republican charges that, among other things, Obama was engaging in class warfare with the Buffett Rule, Fenn pointed to a video from 1985 featuring President Ronald Reagan that's been on the progressive ThinkProgress.org site.

In the video made during an official White House event in Michigan, Reagan talked of the unfairness of the tax code by describing a letter he received from a businessman who complained about the unfairness of his paying taxes at a higher rate than his secretary. Sound familiar?

"It was the Buffet Rule. Reagan was railing against this (tax code disparity) ... My point on this is Ronald Reagan wasn't exactly known as a class warrior according to these current Sean Hannity types. But he got it."

For their part, Republicans clearly intend to use the Buffett Rule debate to cast Obama as just another tax-and-spend Democrat. That was evident from a statement Monday from Romney's campaign:

"President Obama is the first president in history to openly campaign for re-election on a platform of higher taxes...

Meanwhile, not everyone is convinced that the polls that suggest a majority of voters want the rich to payer higher taxes show a complete picture.

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who heads the Tarrance Group, says its not surprising that polls show many voters wanting higher taxes on the wealthy. "Certainly, it's always easier to say the rich ought to pay more."

But when he has done focus groups and asked voters what a fair rate would be, it turns out that it's either less or what the wealthy already pay if you add federal and state taxes.

GOEAS: "The more important thing that I always get from focus groups, I will take it to focus groups and say 'OK, the rich need to pay more, what do you think is a fair amount?'

"And consistently I get somewhere in the 20s maybe combined with what they have to pay for the state, 30 percent would be their fair share. And when you look at it the effective tax rate for people on income tax is 30 percent. So for all the stories about the rich not paying, or millionaires not paying, the fact of the matter is when you average all that out, that higher percent whether you're talking about the highest one percent or two percent of those making over $250,000 or we're talking about millionaires, they're paying that 30 percent that seems more than fair (to many voters.)

Likewise, when he uses his explanation of capital gains taxes as taxes on money that was already taxed, since investments are often made with previously taxed profits or income, support increases for the lower capital gains tax rate.

GOEAS: "I think quite frankly Romney missed an opportunity when it came out about what he was paying since most of his money he is paying is in that capital gains tax rate for him to say... 'I started a business. I worked hard. I created jobs. I created a profit. I paid my fair share of taxes. And then I took those profits and I didn't hide it in a mattress, I put it to work investing in America, investing in American jobs and other businesses.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.