Got time to answer some questions for a poll? We'd like to know which would be worse:
If you're a Washington reporter, the obvious answer is apparently A. When Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann identified the wrong Iowa town as John Wayne's birthplace last week, it triggered a national ink shortage as the news media rushed hoo-hah-she's-an-idiot stories into print. Actual Iowans were less concerned; her polling numbers in the state quadrupled overnight.
But if you're an ordinary taxpaying citizen, it's answer B that should concern you. That one comes not from a potential president but the guy sitting in the White House right this minute. And his inability to tell you from Bill Gates is going to have serious consequences for your bank account.
President Obama's revelation that America's suburbs house secret covens of zillionaires came during a televised news conference last week. Questioned about the impasse over the budget, the president blamed it entirely on Republicans' refusal to accept tax hikes. Why, those piggy little greedheads won't even let me end tax breaks for corporate jets, the president complained.
"If we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who do not have college scholarships," Obama said. It "might compromise the National Weather Services. It means we might not be funding critical medical research. It means food inspection might be compromised. I've said to Republican leaders, you go talk to your constituents and ask them, 'Are you willing to compromise your kids' safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?'"
Just in case any of us were unclear on the concept - Democrats want to take a few expensive toys from the rich, while Republicans want Americans to fester in illiteracy, undetected hurricanes and poisoned tomatoes - Obama mentioned the tax break on corporate jets five more times during his news conference.
Now, even by the standards of modern sound-bite politics, this was a truly amazing bit of sizzle without steak. The president neglected to say where the tax break for corporate jets originated. (It was part of his own 2009 stimulus package.) He neglected to say how much money was involved. (About $300 million a year in the most generous estimates of congressional Democrats, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Obama's stated deficit-reduction target.) He neglected to say that if Republicans threw up their hands in unconditional surrender, erasing the tax break for jets wouldn't pay for even a month of those college scholarships he wants to fund. (Annual cost: $42 billion.)
It's tempting to dismiss the president's fixation on corporate jets as the Obaman equivalent of those 3-by-5 cards with unsourced anecdotes about welfare queens that Ronald Reagan used to read during speeches when he was governor of California, just part of the unfortunate but ultimately meaningless trappings of American politics.
But it's actually far more troubling than that. Obama's portrayal of his tax plans as eat-the-rich populism reveals a disturbing truth about just who Democrats consider wealthy. The answer, increasingly, is just about anybody who can afford two cars and a house in the suburbs. The real meat of Obama's proposed tax increases - nearly $300 billion worth - comes from limiting itemized income-tax deductions for married couples making more than $250,000 a year.
The uppermost reaches of that group, of course, include the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets of the world. But the lower end includes people not in walled mansions but suburban split levels, people who go to work not in corporate jets but the same SUVs in which they haul their kids to soccer games. A husband and wife who make $125,000 apiece certainly aren't poor, but in a world where the average home costs nearly $170,000 and the average car nearly $30,000, they won't be mistaken for the little top-hatted Mr. Moneybags guy on the Monopoly board, either. A recent survey by the marketing agency Digitas showed that the majority consider themselves middle class.
In the logic of Obama's plan to tax his way out of a $14 trillion debt, though, they count as rich. And soon they won't even be on the lowest rung of the wealthy class. That's the dirty little secret of soaking the rich: There just aren't enough of them to pay for everything.
No matter what Democrats say, the richest 1 percent of Americans - that's everybody making $380,000 or more - do not get a free ride under the current tax code. They earn 20 percent of all income in America but pay 38 percent of income taxes. Yet still we're running a $1.65 trillion budget deficit. The Wall Street Journal recently calculated that if you took every penny they made in a year, it would only amount to $938 billion, not even a quarter of Obama's budget. Take the entire income of the entire top 10 percent (everybody making $114,000 or more) and it still won't cover the $4 trillion budget. You want to see who's next? Take a look in the mirror.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.