Why Obama Runs on Taxing the Rich

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Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

If you want to know why President Obama is focusing so intently on raising taxes on the rich, it’s pretty simple. Substantively, the GOP’s refusal to raise taxes on the rich is the main obstacle to a bipartisan agreement on a long-term debt solution. And politically, the Republican position is incredibly unpopular.

The answer to poll questions depends heavily on how the question is posed. Americans favor higher taxes on the rich, and they’re most likely to favor it if the question is posed as a question of priorities (raise taxes on the rich or cut entitlements or raise them on the middle class). Pew asks the question and finds that Americans favor raising taxes on the rich just as an inherent good. They even say it would “help the economy,” which is not even something I’m sure I’d agree with (the evidence suggests raising taxes on the rich would slightly improve long-term growth, but also slightly harm short-term growth).

Pew’s survey also shows, yet again, that even Republicans are only lukewarm on holding down tax rates for the rich. A mere 36 percent of Republicans say raising taxes on the rich would make the tax code less fair, as opposed to 25 percent who say more fair and 30 percent who say it would make no difference. It is remarkable how tepidly the GOP base buys into the overwhelming top priority of the GOP. The GOP has spent twenty years staking its entire strategy around minimizing effective tax rates on the rich, and relentlessly advocating the moral and economic value of doing so, but it remains a cause that’s still popular only with a small number of conservative elites.