Of Taxes and Tea

Apr 15, 2009 8:50am

Today’s “taxpayer tea parties” may reinforce a sense of purpose among conservative activists – but at the moment they’re unlikely to resonate beyond. Recent polling shows little in the way of broad concern about taxes in general or Barack Obama’s approach to them.

In an ABC/Post poll two weeks ago, Americans by nearly 2-1 rejected the characterization of Obama as “an old-style, tax-and-spend Democrat;” 32 percent said it fit, but 62 percent instead said he’s “a new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money.”

Specific to income taxes, in a Gallup poll last week, 61 percent said the amount they pay is fair, a number that’s been stable since 2004. In another result, while 46 percent called their taxes "too high," that matches the fewest in Gallup polls since 1956. It was a far higher 68 percent a decade ago.

While it’s hard to find anyone who likes paying taxes, objections to them generally are overstated. When we measured stimulus preferences in January, a tepid 23 percent gave highest-level priority to a $500 tax cut for most Americans. In February, while one-third said the stimulus didn’t do enough to cut taxes, many more, six in 10, said its tax cuts were about right, or went too far.

In December we asked people, open-ended, to name the most important issue for Obama and Congress to deal with; just 1 percent said taxes. It was the same in our pre-election polling, when we asked the single most important issue in vote preferences.

Also in our pre-election polling, Obama led John McCain by 9 points in trust to handle taxes, the first Democratic candidate to lead on this issue since Bill Clinton in 1992. And in the national exit poll, 22 percent of voters thought their taxes would only go up under Obama, not McCain; but 12 percent thought they’d go up only under McCain. And 49 percent thought they’d go up regardless of who won.

Public interest in tax cuts tends to be overstated; ask President Dole. That said, insouciance on taxes would not play politically: Americans long have been sensitive, in particular, to the notion that their hard-earned tax dollars are wasted by federal misspending.

That makes it an issue on which Obama, with all the spending now under way, may yet become vulnerable; indeed Clinton’s rating as a “tax and spend Democrat” started where Obama’s is now but worsened sharply in the next nine months. Whoever shows at the tea parties today, conservatives' real hope is that they're setting the table for a bigger shindig down the road.

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