May 14, 2007

Obama on Taxes: Lame or Lincolnesque?

You could write a book about things Democrats didn't like about John Kerry as a presidential candidate. One of them was his comparatively timid tax policy proposals, which insisted that the already-enacted Bush tax cuts could (and should) affordably be continued for all but the very wealthiest Americans. Beyond the specifics, there was a vague, but permeating, sense that the fiscally leaky ship of state could be repaired with no sacrifice of any kind required except from the "wealthiest few." (This was, at best, a mild improvement over President Bush's assertion that no fiscal sacrifice would be required from anyone.)

Now along comes candidate Barack Obama. Here he is on yesterday's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (ABC NEWS) Let's talk about taxes. In the town meeting you said you were willing to roll back President Bush's tax cuts to help pay for your health care plan when you announce it.
OBAMA:Rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1%,
people who don't need it would be a good way of helping to pay for the additional services that were needed.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Edwards has said he would consider going farther, raising taxes beyond that on the wealthy. Are you?
OBAMA: Well, I think the starting point has to be are we spending our current money wisely? That has to be the starting point, and I think that's true on health care, that, you know, we can save about $75 billion a year by increasing prevention, managing the chronically ill, applying medical technology. Once we have seen what savings can be obtained then my absolute commitment is to make sure we've got universal health care in this country and I will find the money to make up the difference.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So if it takes new taxes so be it?
OBAMA: If it takes a rollback of those tax cuts, I think that will be sufficient to pay for the health care fund. Now, there are other areas where we've got to make some investments. I have not made a promise and I won't make a promise that I'm going to be able to perfectly balance the budget immediately. What I can say is that we're going to pay as you go, that if I start a new program I'll find a way to pay for it. If I want tax cuts, then I'm going to find a way to pay for it and that over the long term we get a stable budget that is not simply running up the credit card on our children.
All of which sounds pretty Kerryesque to these ears-- the only people who get singed will be the "top 1%," no pain for anyone else.

But after seeing Obama walk this walk yesterday, I happened to read this quote from another Illinois politician in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Which is pretty reprehensible to 21st century ears. At the time, quite a bit of Lincoln's political support came from folks who wanted to keep the Union and keep slavery too. So he thought he couldn't afford (at that stage) to come out with a blanket condemnation of slavery, even though (according to some, anyway) he'd already decided that slavery had to be eliminated. On the slavery issue, Lincoln was a master of telling people what they wanted to hear. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are a fascinating case study of how political messages could be tailored for anti-slavery audiences (in northern Illinois) and arguably pro-slavery audiences (southern Illinois) in a pre-television world. But in the YouTube era, Obama doesn't have that luxury.

So maybe Obama's thinking is that a more aggressive stance [IE, the Bush tax cuts are, by and large, unaffordable and poorly designed, and the burden should be on folks who have specific parts of the Bush plan they want to preserve] is pointlessly impolitic, and that the underlying position of a president Obama (and, possibly, of a president Kerry) would be that he'll do whatever needs to be done to right the fiscal ship of state when the time comes, and he's just sensibly trying hard to avoid giving anti-taxers an "I'll raise your taxes" quote. And maybe in a political climate where tax issues are seen as a powder-keg, this is the best we can expect out of a public appearance by a presidential candidate: a willingness to say that not all of the Bush tax cuts were good.


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