In making tax increases on the wealthy the cri de coeur of his re-election campaign, has Barack Obama chosen self-preservation over Democratic control of Congress?
While Mr. Obama clearly hopes to boost his own prospects with his Monday move to make “tax fairness” the central plank of his campaign, the shift is causing considerable angst among Democrats in Congress.
The Obama campaign reckons that by making income inequality a key issue in the race against Republican Mitt Romney, a wealthy former corporate buy-out king, it can reignite the fervour of the liberal Democratic base that propelled Mr. Obama to victory in 2008.
Until now, the two candidates have been locked in a near dead heat, a stasis that was confirmed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday that showed Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney tied at 47 per cent among registered voters.
But while the tax issue could help Mr. Obama mobilize liberal Democrats in a few critical swing states, it could be poison for the party’s candidates in conservative-leaning regions and cost the party precious seats in Congress.
Democrats currently have a slim 53-seat majority in the Senate, while Republicans control the House of Representatives. Mr. Obama’s call for tax increases on households earning more than $250,000 (U.S.) increases the odds of a GOP takeover in the Senate and reduces the chances that Democrats can regain the House.
While polls show a solid majority of Americans believe the wealthiest among them should pay more in taxes, Mr. Obama’s plan causes consternation for many Democrats who think he has set the bar too low at $250,000.
They fear voters will be receptive to Republican charges that the President is using “class warfare” to divert attention from his handling of the economy. And they worry the $250,000 threshold will alienate middle-class voters who aspire to earn more than that.
Most of the Democrats who commented on Monday called for the bar for tax increases to be set at $1-million in annual income, a line they believe more clearly reflects the U.S. definition of “wealthy.”
Even Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House and a stalwart of the party’s liberal wing, had previously called for the cut off line to be set at $1-million. With Mr. Obama’s move, her hopes of regaining the House speakership may go up in flames.
Several Senate Democrats up for re-election come from states that lean Republican, but who won their seats in the mid-term Democratic sweep of 2006. They include Montana’s Jon Tester, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Florida’s Bill Nelson, all of whom have moved to distance themselves from Mr. Obama’s proposal.
Other Democrats who are running to replace retiring Democratic incumbents in Virginia, North Dakota and Nebraska also voiced their disagreement with the President.
Former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who is running for the Democrats in the state’s open Senate race, called on Monday for the threshold to be set at $500,000, as did Kathy Hochul , a Democratic congresswoman running to keep her Buffalo, N.Y. seat.
However, Mr. Obama has been under pressure from liberal activists to make good on his 2008 promise to raise taxes on households making more than $250,000. They greeted his move on Monday to renew it with elation.