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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

It felt like a primal whine from rich reporters. Hasn’t Barack Obama considered that maybe John McCain’s tax policy is the right one? Does Obama not realize that the best way to be a Democrat is preserve conservative Republican tax policy?

Why would Obama raise taxes on people making over $250,000 beginning in two years? If you tamper with trickle-down, the dramatic shift of income toward the wealthy that was the hallmark of George W. Bush’s tax policy, don’t you know it’ll be disaster? It’ll be “class warfare!” (The first questioner: Are you worried that the “class warfare” argument could sink the budget?)

In a remarkable scene, Gibbs patiently and repeatedly explained that, no really, Obama actually won the election, that he’d explained exactly what he was going to do during the campaign, the American people understood and voted on it, and now he’s doing it. During the campaign, Obama had pledged to cut taxes for 95% of American workers and end the catastrophic non-workingness of George Bush’s trickle-down tax policy. Now, among some questioners, there seems to be confusion and alarm that Obama intends to implement that policy.

I actually sort of remember this coming up during the campaign. Those making more than $250,000 will be asked to give a little back, give up the Bush income tax cuts and go back to the marginal tax rates during the Clinton years when the economy was strong and the rising tide lifted all boats.

There were many questions that seemed quizzical about Obama’s budget proposal following in line with his campaign rhetoric, but this exchange between Gibbs and CBS’ Chip Reid is illustrative:

Reid: On jobs, which is the big complaint up on Capitol Hill right now from Republicans, that this plan is a job-killer. I mean, the $787 billion plan was all about jobs, more than anything else. And now you have a plan in place that — how can you possibly tax people making people over $250,000 something like $667 billion over the next ten years and not have a downward effect on jobs?

Gibbs: Well, Chip, how did it work in 1994 and 1995 and 1996 and 1997?

Reid: Well, I guess the argument would be, imagine if they didn’t have those taxes… how much better it would have been.

Gibbs: Well, isn’t it interesting that there’s always some little slip? … There isn’t a member of Congress, if they were to file a single-taxpayer form, who makes above $200,000 a year.

Jake Tapper: There are a lot of millionaires up there.

Gibbs: Well, that’s true, but not on their income. I mean, I think it’s interesting as people listen to those complaining about some aspects of the budget, I think it’s just interesting to note. I think the President was pretty clear on Tuesday. We are talking about people who earn in excess of a quarter of a million dollars a year.

Reid: And a huge percentage of those people are small business owners.

Gibbs: Some of them are, sure. Some of them are big business owners. Some of them are home run hitters in Major League Baseball. Some of them run kickoffs back for a living. Some of them are the President of the United States.

Q (off mike): — create jobs?

Gibbs: Certainly some of them, that’s what their job is. But I would reject this overall premise that when we’re asking for tax fairness from the American people, that this is going to kill jobs. I guess if I follow the logic of the Republicans on Capitol Hill, how do you explain last month’s unemployment figures? (Pause.) Under current tax rates? 550,000 jobs.

Reid: (Long pause) It’s a unique moment.

Gibbs: (Laughs heartily) Apparently, it always is…. The president ran specifically on the promises that are contained in what he believes is a blueprint and a vision for our future. And that’s what the the American people, that’s the result they rendered in November.

The Washington Post online afternoon headline blared, “Obama Budget Would Raise Taxes on Wealthy.” As a seeming afterthought, the article notes, “At the same time, a refundable income tax credit for 95 percent of American workers would be made permanent under the budget proposal.”

The sour mood of the elite press corps was apparent from the first question, by the Associated Press’ Jennifer Loven. Noting Obama’s quote from earlier today, “There are times when you can afford to redecorate your house and there are times when you have to focus on rebuilding its foundation,” Loven asked whether it was appropriate that the Obamas conduct any re-decorations in the White House as they settle in.

A visibly surprised Gibbs noted that there hadn’t been seven and ten year old girls in the house in the previous administration. Then came Loven’s “class warfare” question. Apparently, returning to Clinton marginal tax rates two years from now should put the White House on the defensive over “class warfare.”

Here was an actual question the Wall Street Journal asked regarding health care:

“As an opening White House position, does President Obama still start with the plan he campaigned on?”

Another exchange, at the end of the briefing:

Question: Critics of the budget blueprint that has been put out today charge that this is a form of wealth redistribution. Even the New York Times in its front page story, fourth paragraph, talks about the idea of wealth redistribution. How do you respond to that?

Gibbs: The same way I did to the other questions: that the president campaigned on explicitly promising that he would cut taxes for 95% of working Americans if he was elected president. We did that in the reinvestment and recovery plan, and those tax cuts are also contained within this budget. The president also said that for families that make more than a quarter of a million dollars, $250,000, are likely to see their tax rates revert back to the way they were for most of the 90s. That’s also in this budget. The President believes we have a plan that will lead to long term economic growth, sustained long term economic growth, while making those important investments. That’s what this budget blueprint does, that’s what he campaigned on, instituting fairness — more fairness in our system, and that’s what he’s done.

Indeed, it’s right there on Obama’s website still:

“Families making more than $250,000 will pay either the same or lower tax rates than they paid in the 1990s. Obama will ask the wealthiest 2% of families to give back a portion of the tax cuts they have received over the past eight years to ensure we are restoring fairness and returning to fiscal responsibility. But no family will pay higher tax rates than they would have paid in the 1990s.”

Wealth redistribution! Class warfare! This was what John McCain’s campaign was chanting throughout the home stretch of the campaign, and then there was a referendum on it. As it turned out, Americans rejected the argument as alarmist, that tax cuts for 95% and rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest to Clinton levels wasn’t all that bad an idea.

As one reporter observed after the briefing, “Did you notice all the questions about taxes came from reporters making over $250,000 a year, especially the TV guys?”

If the White House learned from the stimulus debate that it needed to go on the road and have a cohesive, aggressive messaging strategy to push back on criticism, those lessons will have to be applied immediately. Not just to push back on Republicans, but for a significant percentage of the incredulous media.

My instinct says Gibbs was taken a little by surprise at the force and repetition on the questions. Frankly, the White House ought to put out a comprehensive list of the countless explicit statements made by candidate Obama, from stump speeches and debates, to town halls and interviews, listing exactly what and when Obama said about changes to Republican tax policy he intended to make if elected. They ought to count the number of times Obama spoke on the tax issue and drum that number home.

That number, whatever it is, ought to be on the lips of Obama, Gibbs, and every single surrogate. It’s certainly well over 100. Obama is very popular; Congressional Republicans are not. Using that number to confront what will surely be strong Republican and some media opposition to the premise that the election was about something reframes the debate as “critics vs. the mandate.”

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