MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – Finally, an unemployed American whom President Obama was happy to hear from.
During a town-hall style event here at the Computer History Museum, Obama was answering tough questions about his $447 billion American Jobs Act when he called on a man in sitting in the back row of the audience.
The man, balding and wearing glasses, stood to explain he was unemployed. Uh-oh. But, the man continued, he was no longer working because he had made a lot of money in a start-up company down the road in Silicon Valley.
“My question is would you please raise my taxes?” the man deadpanned, to immediate laughter and applause. “I would like very much to have the country to continue to invest in things like Pell Grants and infrastructure and job-training programs that made it possible for me to get to where I am. And it kills me to see Congress not supporting the expiration of the tax cuts that have been benefiting so many of us for so long. I think that needs to change, and I hope that you will stay strong in doing that.”
If Obama, who has been barnstorming the country, was searching for someone – aside from billionaire investor Warren Buffett – to be the populist face of his jobs package, this was a moment that could not have been scripted better.
Unemployment is at 9.1 percent, and Obama has been battered in public opinion polls, his job approval rating plummeting below 40 percent. In response, Obama has proposed the “Buffett rule” that would raise taxes on Americans who earn more than $1 million a year to help pay for an ambitious $3 trillion deficit reduction plan. But congressional Republicans, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), along with some Democrats, have denounced the proposal as a non-starter as they propose instead to cut more spending.
The man was later identified in news reports as Doug Edwards, a former Google employee who told reporters he is part of a group called “Patriotic Millionaires for Higher Taxes.”
In response to Edwards, Obama laid out his vision that wealthier Americans benefited from many factors in society and should be willing to pay back a little bit more of the money they have earned to benefit others.
“At some point, money makes a difference,” the president said. “And, right now, we’ve got the lowest tax rates we’ve had since the 1950s. And some of the Republican proposals would take it back — as a percentage of GDP — back to where we were back in the 1920s. You can’t have a modern industrial economy like that.
“So I appreciate your sentiment,” Obama concluded. “I appreciate the fact that you recognize we’re in this thing together. We’re not on our own. And those of us who’ve been successful, we’ve always got to remember that.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill quickly pointed out that it might not be easy for a man who is no longer receiving a paycheck to pay income taxes, even if he wants to pay higher rates.
But for Obama, it was a rare moment of good feeling in what has been a tough several months. In selling the jobs package on trips to several states, Obama has made the case that his mix of tax cuts and infrastructure investments would create more than a million jobs over the next several years.
Realistically, however, his legislative package has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House and both sides are jockeying to win public support in the political debate that could help shape the 2012 presidential election.
The town-hall event is the centerpiece of a three-day West Coast swing in which Obama is also appearing at seven fundraisers and touring a high school in Denver Tuesday to highlight his proposed $25 billion investment in renovating school buildings across the country.
LinkedIn, a social networking service for business professionals that features 120 million users, co-sponsored the gathering, which the White House titled “Putting Americans Back to Work.”
Most of the questions focused on the economy and jobs, with several people telling the president that they or their relatives had lost their jobs and were worried about their future. One woman said her mother, recently unemployed, feared that Social Security and Medicare would be ended.
“I’m not going to do what the Republicans propose, which is voucherize the Medicare system,” Obama said. “We are going to be pushing back against that kind of proposal.”
At the end of the event, Obama said: “People are just looking for common sense . . . The problem is not outside of Washington but the problem is everything has become so ideological and everyone is just focused on the next election and putting party before country that we’re not able to solve our problems.”