Obama’s truth: Taxes or debt

IN NORMAL times, calling for higher taxes is risky political business.

But these are not normal times. Which is why, in his State of the Union address, Barack Obama doubled down on the notion of tax fairness by pushing for higher rates on upper earners.

“[W]e’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households,’’ the president said.


And he finally started to highlight the choice this country faces. “Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else, like education and medical research, a strong military and care for our veterans?’’ he said. “Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.’’

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

That’s a cogent, if not completely candid, argument - the more so since since Mitt Romney became the personification of the favorable tax treatment the rich receive; his rate of about 15 percent puts a wealthy, well-known face on Obama’s call for those with incomes of more than $1 million to pay at least 30 percent in taxes.

Now, what’s fair in tax policy is largely subjective. And yet, as polls have repeatedly shown, most people favor hiking taxes on the wealthy over deeper cuts in government programs - and in a democracy, voters are the electoral judge of equity.

That’s created an obvious problem for Republicans, whose anti-tax arguments are timeworn and threadbare.

Increasing taxes on the well-to-do, they insist, will be a body blow to the economy. Problem: They made the same claim when Bill Clinton raised taxes, only to have the boom of the 1990s give the lie to their apocalyptic predictions.


Second, Republicans note, the $700 billion to $800 billion that ending the Bush tax cuts for upper earners would raise over a decade isn’t nearly enough revenue to stanch the federal flow of red ink. True enough; if the president were more forthcoming, he’d acknowledge that over the long term, that task will also require higher middle-class taxes.

And yet, the notion that nothing is worth doing unless it addresses most or all of the deficit just doesn’t scan. Obama put things in proper perspective in his Tuesday speech. The American people, he said, understand that “when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference, like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet.’’

Perhaps not all voters understand that now, but with the White House driving the message, most should by election day. Although the budget itself is hugely complex, the basic fiscal reality is not: If you aren’t going to raise more revenue, in a time of deep deficits, that means more cuts, and, eventually, deeper reductions in programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Listening to Republican presidential candidates, one would hardly know that raising more revenue is even an option, let alone one that all the various deficit commissions have recommended. The GOP’s would-be presidents speak about reducing the deficit as an absolute imperative - but rule out asking even the very rich to pay more, insisting instead that all the deficit-battling efforts must come on the spending side.

Another assertion heard time and again is that Obama is “waging class warfare.’’ That’s just flapdoodle, the type of foolishness politicians resort to for want of a stronger argument. Were the 1950s, with their much more progressive tax rates, a time of class warfare? Were the Clinton years a time of inter-class combat?


The only people who nod at the class-warfare argument are the conservative true believers. And therein lies the problem for the GOP. Their voices may dominate Republican discourse - but presidential elections are decided by fair-minded folks in the middle.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.