Framing the Debate: Tax Giveaways vs. Investing in the Common Good

fix deficit - McClatchy poll April 2011If you saw President Obama's press conference yesterday, you may have noticed the simple brilliance of this great communicator: with ease, he set up the real, simple choice in the debt limit and deficit reduction dialog: we can keep tax breaks for the super rich, or we can pay for services that the government provides that everyone else uses, but we cannot do both.
If we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars, then that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we’ve got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.
Barack Obama does two things here: first, he makes the choice clear. This is almost a reiteration of the theme that President Obama created back when the House Republicans voted to end Medicare - that the Republican plan was to make 33 seniors each pay $6000 extra per year so they can write a big fat $200,000 check to the average millionaire. The President knows - and the Republicans know, and the Republicans know that the President knows - that when given the choice, the American people will choose to close corporate and ultra-wealthy tax loopholes and keep these services they use. Americans have said so resoundingly - 64% support raising taxes on the rich to balance the budget, and 67% think corporations pay too little in taxes.

But it's more than that this time. This time, it goes beyond simply the popular and well-known "entitlement" programs. President Obama has pivoted now to talk about the role of government and taxes in the lives of ordinary people. Look at the things the President is mentioning: college scholarships, medical research, food safety, Medicare. What's the common thread? These are all things the middle class takes for granted. Yet, most do not stop and consider that the source of these things are public taxpayer dollars. President Obama is not only saying that this is a choice; he is also pointing out the investments that taxpayer dollars make to help real lives.

In other words, the President just reframed taxes as an investment - as opposed to the right wing frame of taxes being a "punishment for success." This completely devastates the Right's "tax and spend" charge against liberal policies and instead puts the onus on Republicans to tell us why we should divest in America so corporations can get tax credits to ship your job overseas. There is no harder blow to conservative economic propaganda than for people to understand the concept of taxes as a common good (or for that matter, the very concept of common good itself). And there is no better way to reframe the debate from a progressive perspective, because this is the progressive position on taxes - that they are an investment we make in the next generation and in a civil society.

In the mean time, the President also threw a gauntlet to the Republicans: extend the tax cuts for the middle class that he has put into place last December (this would include the payroll tax cut), while calling for the end of tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. This  coupling too has a progressive framing at the root: a more progressive taxation structure where everyone, especially the most fortunate, pay a fairer share to benefit the common good.

John Boehner, of course, is still crying that he won't agree to any tax increases, but there is a reason why Democrats, and now the President, have felt free to dig in and call the Republicans on their bluff. How come? Well, there is no risk in calling the bluff when you know they are bluffing. Boehner can huff and puff all he wants, but with Standard & Poors threatening to downgrade US credit ratings immediately if the debt limit is not raised (which, by the way, would mean a global financial shock and higher interest on your mortgage - see why), Boehner's benefactors on Wall Street will not let him screw with treasury notes, something that sets the interest rates for damn nearly everything.

When even Wall Street realizes that revenue increase, and not only spending cuts, will be needed to deal with the deficit, Boehner's threats are nothing more than the roars of a paper tiger, and President Obama is hip to it. But it wouldn't be so impressive if he were simply hip to what's going on - he has decided to use this moment to reframe the whole debate about taxes and spending and make it about investments in the common good that affect the lives of ordinary people in ways one can see and feel. This is the debate and the frame conservatives dread, and Barack Obama has put it at their doorstep. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why this man is our President.