BOCA RATON, Fla. - All but certain now that his Republican opponent will be Mitt Romney, President Obama has made his proposed “Buffett Rule’’ minimum tax for the wealthiest Americans like Romney a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, defying the political risk of being seen as a tax-and-spender by wary voters.
With a rousing speech Tuesday to a receptive university audience of about 5,000 in this battleground state, Obama defined the coming contest as a clash of philosophies: his argument that tax fairness and the common good demand that the richest Americans pay at least as much as middle-income taxpayers do, contrasted with Republicans’ opposition to any tax increases as job killers and class warfare, even at the cost of deep cuts in domestic programs.
While voters have not often rewarded candidates who advocate tax increases, Obama and his campaign advisers, in league with Democrats in Congress, express confidence that voters are on their side, with polls showing that Americans overwhelmingly agree that wealthy taxpayers should pay more and favor spending for programs like education, research, and health care.
The Democrats’ offensive, not coincidentally, is tied to the likelihood that Romney will be the nominee.
In past months Romney’s Republican rivals had caricatured him as a Wall Street investor raking in millions with job-cutting corporate takeovers and slashing his taxes through loopholes and Swiss bank accounts, so he was hardly likely to get off easier with Democrats.
Obama is expected to try to talk about the still-weak economy and job creation in a way that plays to Romney’s weaknesses, and Republicans’ generally, and underplays his own political liabilities at a time of high unemployment and gas prices.
“These folks, they keep telling us that if we just weaken regulations that keep our air or our water clean or protect our consumers, if we would just convert these investments that we’re making through our government in education and research and health care - if we just turned those into tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, then somehow the economy is going to grow stronger. That’s the theory,’’ Obama said, to applause and cheers. “And here’s the news: We tried this for eight years before I took office.’’
But despite anemic job growth in that period and then a recession and financial crash, Obama added, “A lot of the folks who were peddling these same trickle-down theories - including members of Congress and some people who are running for a certain office right now, who shall not be named - they’re doubling down on these old broken-down theories.’’
Even before Obama spoke, Romney and other Republicans were firing back, making clear they will try to make the president’s political gamble a loser.
“President Obama is the first president in history to openly campaign for reelection on a platform of higher taxes,’’ the Romney campaign said in a statement from a spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho. “He has already raised taxes on millions of Americans, but he won’t stop there. He wants to raise taxes on millions more by taxing small businesses and job creators.’’
Before the Florida trip, the White House released a report by Obama’s economic team making the substantive case for what is essentially a political proposal because it has no chance of advancing in Congress before the election. The Buffett Rule would set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for individuals on their annual income above $1 million.
The report argued that the minimum tax would restore some fairness to the tax code and reduce economically inefficient gaming of the system. Over five decades since 1960, it said, the average tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans has dropped much more than the rate for middle-income taxpayers.
“Look, I want folks to get rich in this country,’’ Obama said. “I think it’s wonderful when people are successful. That’s part of the American dream.
“But understand,’’ he added, “the share of our national income going to the top 1 percent has climbed to levels we haven’t seen since the 1920s. The folks who are benefiting from this are paying taxes at one of the lowest rates in 50 years.’’
And Romney will personify that issue if the Obama campaign has its way. With income mostly from investments, Romney paid a tax rate of about 14 percent on about $21 million in income in each of the past two years. That effective tax rate was far below the 35 percent top rate on the highest incomes because much of his income is from capital gains and dividends, which are taxed at 15 percent, and because he claimed an assortment of tax deductions. Hedge fund managers and private equity investors similarly pay the 15 percent rate on their income.