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Mitt Romney was never able to find the right way to talk about his money, but Barack Obama is happy to tell you that he’s rich, again and again. That is, if he’s asking for higher marginal taxes on the rich, whose ranks Obama first joined with book-related earnings and then with his $400,000 White House salary.
Obama said it again this week: “What the country needs … is an acknowledgment that folks like me can afford to pay a little bit higher rate,” he told Bloomberg News. He’s been saying it at least since April 2011, when he was pushing the “Buffett rule”: “I don’t need another tax cut,” he said. “Warren Buffett doesn’t need another tax cut.”
Buffett has long advocated for higher taxes on the rich, starting with himself, and lately more business types have been chiming in. Celebrities like Ben Affleck and Barbara Streisand were using the same tack to talk about the Bush tax cuts when Bush was still in office. But it’s one thing for Buffett or David Geffen, famous for being rich and successful, to point out the obvious; it’s another for a politician, particularly the president, to draw attention to it, risking channeling mixed American feelings toward the wealthy. And Obama, following the example of Bill Clinton, has only summoned his wealth to talk to the vast majority of Americans who aren’t rich about a shared sacrifice he plans to take part in.
“Americans love a self-made man and tend to be suspicious of those born with money,” hypothesized Marc Fisher in the Washington Post earlier this year. “But for a people of a nation founded in rebellion against rule by men with inherited wealth, Americans have happily supported many politicians — Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes — who grew up rich.” It’s also mocked the likes of George H. W. Bush for being out-of-touch patricians. What made the difference? “Pure force of personality,” something no one ever accused Romney of having. He was unable to successfully empathize with the hard-up (unless you count “I’m unemployed too”) or honestly own up to his advantages — to the end, Romney insisted he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, alternating defensiveness and obliviousness when the subject came up.
And while Romney oozed privilege, neither Clinton, with his humble origins and an enduring common touch, nor Obama, as a black man, fit into the Monty Burns archetype of wealth. When they say they’re rich, it seems both refreshingly honest and an emblem of American social mobility. And it’s less mean-spirited than saying that someone else — say, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton — doesn’t deserve the break.
The Clintons only became truly wealthy in the year after leaving the White House, from $358,000 to $16 million in 2001 from speaking and writing, according to their tax returns. That, combined with the Bush tax cuts, allowed Clinton brilliantly to use the trope in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.
“They gave two huge tax cuts, nearly half of which went to the top 1 percent of us,” he said. “Now, I’m in that group for the first time in my life. And you might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me. But as soon as I got out and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I’d be so well cared for by the president and the Republicans in Congress. I almost sent them a thank you note for my tax cuts until I realized that the rest of you were paying the bill for it.”
What followed was a litany of burdens on everyone else, “the choices they made,” in order to “protect my tax cut.” Clinton has stayed on that message since, except when he complicated the simplicity of it earlier this year, giving the White House a headache in the process. “I think you could tax me at a 100 percent and you wouldn’t balance the budget,” he said, adding that eventually, taxes should go up for everyone.
The rich who demand to be taxed are also implicitly shaming their brethren into contributing more. The most gleefully profane exemplar of this is Stephen King, who in April wrote an entreaty to be taxed more that set himself apart from his peers: “I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing ‘Disco Inferno’ than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar.” By the way, 31 of the 50 wealthiest members of Congress are Republicans, according to The Hill, so those national politicians are not particularly likely to jump on this rhetorical bandwagon.
Now that Obama has picked up the mantle, conservatives remain, predictably, unconvinced. “Aside from the fact that the president is a government worker whose salary represents little in the way of increased productivity or profits, his self-regarding snub of tax relief is a special variation of the argumentum ad ignorantiam or appeal to ignorance,” complained DG Myers at Commentary. Since he does not know why a tax cut would do any good (for him), he can’t see how it would do any good for anyone. The argument may be false, but at least it makes the president look smug.” More likely, it makes him look like he’s keeping it real.
Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.More Irin Carmon.