It’s no surprise that many of the policy proposals in President Obama’s State of the Union speech are unlikely to pass ahead of the 2012 election. The opposing party who controls the House isn’t about to give him any wins. But as a frame of the president’s populist message — more equitable taxation, and fundamental economic fairness — the speech and the stumping that followed have served as a shot across the bow of his would-be GOP rivals for the White House.
The centerpiece of Obama’s fairness message increasingly comes in the form of the the Buffett Rule, named for billionaire investor Warren Buffett. It’s become more than the idea that tax rates should be equal for those who make their living through income and those who gain fortune through investment returns. It’s become a stand-in for the idea that the American economic system is rigged, that the rich have prosperity on lock down and the rules have left very little room for those who start with nothing to end up closer to the top.
It’s a powerful general election message — after all, the rich are very few, and everyone else gets to vote too. But the Buffett Rule by itself isn’t going to get President Obama re-elected — polls show it must be tethered to a message about jobs.
Taken on its own, the Buffett Rule is popular. Numbers from a CBS News poll released in mid January show that Americans are in favor of equalizing income and capital gains rates 52 percent of the time, against 36 percent who said we should stick with current policy.
“People see the tax system as less fair as they used to, but it doesn’t have to do with themselves,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of research at Pew. “Fewer Americans feel that they are overtaxed. Back in the 90s there was a lot of anti-IRS anger — but a lot of that has faded. There’s a sense that there’s a group of people out there that aren’t paying their fair share.”
This is where the president’s message and public opinion overlap. Pew’s own recent numbers show that President Obama is seen by a 55 percent majority of registered voters as understanding the problems of people like them. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, President Obama’s most likely opponent, does not do very well on the same question — only 39 percent of voters said the same, while 48 percent said that he does not understand their problems. It’s typical for Democrats to do better on that metric, Dimock said. But it’s certainly not an advantageous position to be in.
“It’s a conversation where the President is on stronger ground. His tone about fairness is one that taps into the frustration,” Dimock told TPM. “It exemplifies the problems Republicans have with this issue — when they’re talking about lowering taxes on job creators, people have a synthetic view of the that. But when it’s someone like Romney, who has 40 million in capital gains income in the last year, that’s a whole different thing.”
One senior Democratic strategist said it’s not only about rallying the base — it’s also about expanding it. “Progressive taxation is a winning idea, even among moderate Republicans. It might sound populist, but the appeal is broader,” the strategist wrote in an email to TPM. “People think that those who benefit from society should pay their fair share. There are ways to use populist rhetoric to promote the idea, but if they do that, they are limiting the appeal of a good idea.”
“Romney’s returns confirmed what everybody thought, that rich people don’t pay what average people pay,” the strategist wrote. “So if they do it right, it’s not taxing people because the rich are greedy or because the system is broken — the populist angle — it’s just because that’s what’s fair.”
Gallup has tracked the question of economic fairness and released new data on Monday affirming two results: One, that about half of Americans do think the system is unfair, and a little less than half say that it is. But most Americans do believe that the system is actually fair to them.
“All in all, these findings suggest that Obama’s re-election strategy — focusing on an assumption that the U.S. economic system in this country is unfair and needs to be fixed — will unfold in an environment in which many Americans already believe the system is fair,” wrote the polling firm’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport.
In an interview with TPM, Newport said that while the Buffett Rule and related political lines of attack are viewed favorably, the risk that the President runs is concentrating more on symptoms of the country’s economic woes without addressing the actual illness, a point echoed by Dimock at Pew: “The public cares about jobs jobs jobs — they may have sympathy for fixing the tax system to make more fair is one thing, but it might seem off-topic — ‘Why are you talking about that when we need jobs?’”
Both Newport and Dimock made the same analogy — the heath care reform debate of 2009. Reforming the health care system generally and the individual components of the health care law were both popular, they said. But the enormous clash over the legislation soured the public on the topic, which was also brought up at a time when Americans were more keenly focused on the economy in the shadow of a recession.
“Americans are more likely to say we just need better jobs,” Newport told TPM about the push on the Buffett Rule. “People agree that jobs are number one and the economy isn’t good. President Obama may say that’s because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, but I don’t think that most Americans make that vital leap.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.