Mitt Romney moved Wednesday to broaden the presidential campaign into a debate over the redistribution of wealth from one group to another, a move aided by the release of a recording of a young Barack Obama supporting that goal.
Born of Romney’s need to pivot out of the brouhaha over a recording of his own remarks, the move nonetheless highlighted a fundamental question over spending that underlies the election choice between Obama and the Democrats, who favor an expansive role for government, and Romney and the Republicans, who want to curb the government’s role.
The debate over how much to tax some Americans and how much to give to others is hardly new, dating at least to the birth of the progressive income tax a century ago and the New Deal creation of a government safety net for the needy in the 1930s.
But it comes now at a time when the number of American households receiving help from the government has jumped – and the issue drives the biggest wedge between Democrats and Republicans in an already polarized electorate.
It was aggravated by the release of a video showing Romney earlier this year disparaging the Americans who receive government help, and then a recording of Obama in 1998 saying he supported the idea of redistribution of wealth.
“Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency,” Romney said in an op-ed article Wednesday in USA Today. “My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility.”
His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was more pointed.
“Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth, Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth,” Ryan said at a rally in Danville, Va.
They were referring to the recording released this week of Obama talking about government spending while a state senator in Illinois.
"The trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources, and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody has a shot," Obama said.
Though he does not now use the term “redistribution,” Obama does broadly embrace the idea of government marshaling money from others to help the needy. “We’ve got some obligations to each other,” he said this week on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman.” “And there’s nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand."
Government spending to help people has shot up over the last three decades, through administrations of both political parties.
By one measure, 49.1 percent of Americans lived last year in a household that received some government benefits, according to a study of census data by the Wall Street Journal. That was up from 30 percent in the 1980s and even from the 44.4 percent in the third quarter of 2008.
Some get checks from programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which are financially supported by payroll taxes from younger Americans.
Others get checks or help from programs tied to income, such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance. About 92 million Americans, nearly one out of three, lived in a household receiving those types of government help in 2009, according to the census.
One of the fastest growing programs is food stamps, now issued to nearly 47 million Americans. Spending for food stamps has more than doubled over the last four years to a record $76 billion.
That increase was driven in part by the deep recession and the drop of incomes since then. Also, eligibility or benefits were expanded, under both parties, in 2002, 2008 and 2009.
The spike in food stamp costs has stymied Congress, where a dispute between the House and the Senate over how to cut back has stalled the farm bill.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sidestepped questions Wednesday about Obama’s comments supporting redistribution of wealth, suggesting it was all part of a “desperate” attempt by Romney to change the subject from his own recorded comments.
He said that Obama “believed then and believes now that there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard.”
However, few federal programs require work. And Carney referred to popular programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which mostly target the retired and the elderly. He did not mention federal programs aimed at the poor or working poor.
Ultimately, what Carney was trying to avoid was a debate that is one of the most divisive in U.S. politics.
In a recent survey, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found 65 percent of Democrats believe the government should spend more to help needy people even if it means more debt, while 20 percent of Republicans feel the same way. That 45-point gap is among the widest between regular people who call themselves Democrat or Republican.
Concluded Pew: “There already were sizeable partisan gaps . . . these differences have widened considerably.”