Following up on an earlier item, President Obama spoke from the East Room of the White House this afternoon, making his case for extending a middle-class tax break. As was the case with Obama's moves on immigration and marriage equality, it's fair to say the president's proposal is ... clever.
For those who can't watch clips online, the transcript is already up, and it's worth checking out. Obama reminded the public of the taxes he's already cut -- "I wanted to repeat that because sometimes there's a little misinformation out there and folks get confused about it," he said -- and highlighted the fact that trickle-down economics hasn't worked. Obama added that the policy might look a lot different if the nation was still running a surplus.
But the meat of the pitch was making the case for extending lower tax rates for another year for those making under $250,000.
"I believe we should be able to come together and get this done. While I disagree on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, because we just can't afford them, I recognize that not everybody agrees with me on this. On the other hand, we all say we agree that we should extend the tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. Everybody says that. The Republicans say they don't want to raise taxes on the middle class. I don't want to raise taxes on the middle class.
"So we should all agree to extend the tax cuts for the middle class. Let's agree to do what we agree on. Right? That's what compromise is all about. Let's not hold the vast majority of Americans and our entire economy hostage while we debate the merits of another tax cut for the wealthy. We can have that debate. We can have that debate, but let's not hold up working on the thing that we already agree on."
If this is about getting the larger tax fight off to a good start, Obama's strategy is a good one.
For one thing, this tries to separate two tax policies -- a popular one (extended breaks for the middle class) and an unpopular one (extended breaks for the rich) -- making it harder for Republicans to hold the prior the hostage.
For another, as Nate Cohn explained, this will necessarily put Romney "in a delicate position."
He will be forced to oppose extending tax cuts for the middle class and defend tax cuts for affluent Americans immediately after a relentless effort to define Romney as a self-interested plutocrat who prioritizes personal wealth over middle class job security. Undoubtedly, the Obama campaign will deploy personal attacks on Romney's offshore bank accounts and investments in foreign tax havens to implicate his credibility on taxes -- giving the debate unusual and powerful synergy between character and policy questions.
These Romney-specific challenges compound the difficulties of navigating an already challenging political issue. Polls show strong support for allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for affluent Americans. Surely support for extending tax cuts for middle class families is even higher, especially since the GOP will struggle to explain their opposition to extending middle class tax cuts when claiming to support such an extension. Even if the GOP can effectively defuse the issue, bringing up taxes provides ample opportunities for the Obama campaign to pivot to personal attacks on Bermudan shell companies and Swiss bank accounts, solidifying emerging negative impressions of Romney's business dealings.
This, in turn, undermines Romney's outreach to the very white, working-class voters in the Midwest he'll need if he's going to win.
Obama and his team don't seem afraid of this fight in the slightest. On the contrary, they feel like they have the stronger hand -- if Republicans give in and approve the president's plan, Obama gets the political benefit; if Republicans are intransigent and fight for the rich, Obama gets the political benefit.