One conservative narrative about President Obama is that he wants to raise taxes not to fund a welfare state, but first and foremost to impoverish the wealthy.
Syndicated columnist Debra Saunders recently accused Obama of waging a “war on private money” and wanting to “make sure that nobody walks away with too much.” Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has insisted that the president’s “political core” on issues such as capital gains or income taxes is a fanatical devotion to an irrational egalitarianism, even if the only thing it accomplishes is making the rich poorer or slowing the economy: “Fairness trumps growth. Fairness trumps revenue. Fairness trumps economic logic.”
This sort of TV-screen soul-reading often speaks more about the determination of those conducting such assessments than those with whom they are finding fault. Regardless, Obama has gone out of his way this week to rebut extravagant theorizing about his motives as he has discussed his proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year.
“This has nothing to do with me wanting to punish success,” he said Tuesday about allowing rates to rise on income above $250,000. “We love folks getting rich.”
“I might feel differently if we were still in surplus,” Obama said the day before, implying that he didn’t have an ideological determination to raise rates on the rich absent other circumstances, such as the long-term budget outlook and social programs he wants to defend. He needs to raise cash for the Treasury, and he thinks the wealthy should be first in line to pay.
There are many ways to criticize Obama’s plan. When it comes to raising revenue, financing the government on the income taxes of a sliver of the population is not as rational as cutting out some major tax breaks — such as the mortgage-interest deduction, which benefits mostly the wealthy and perniciously distorts the economy. Anyway, though raising rates on the rich alone might help a bit, it won’t solve the long-term budget crisis; the president still has not said how he would do that — only that he wants to start with letting the Bush tax rates expire for upper incomes.
But Obama can still more than plausibly deny that he wants to raise rates merely to deprive the rich of money. Even if critics who hold that unlikely and uncharitable view probably won’t take him at his word.
UPDATE, 3:30 p.m.: The text above has been very slightly edited for clarity.