DANA MILBANK: 'Buffet Rule' gimmick skips meaningful reform

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – President Obama admits it: His proposed “Buffett Rule” tax on millionaires is a gimmick.
“There are others who are saying: ‘Well, this is just a gimmick. Just taxing millionaires and billionaires, just imposing the Buffett Rule, won’t do enough to close the deficit,’” Obama declared Wednesday. “Well, I agree.”
Actually, the gimmick was apparent even without the president’s acknowledgment. He gave his remarks in a room in the White House complex adorned with campaign-style photos of his factory tours. On stage with him were eight props: four millionaires, each paired with a middle-class assistant. The octet smiled and nodded so much as Obama made his case that it appeared the president was sharing the stage with eight bobbleheads.
And if that’s not enough evidence of gimmickry, after his speech Obama’s re-election campaign unveiled an online tax calculator “to see how your tax rate stacks up against Mitt Romney’s – and then see what the Buffett Rule would do.”
Obama argued that his plan to make sure that those earning north of $1 million a year don’t pay a lower tax rate than average Americans – although gimmicky and insufficient – is an advance. “The notion that it doesn’t solve the entire problem doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it at all,” he explained.
That’s true, to a point. But Obama’s claim that the Buffett Rule “is something that will get us moving in the right direction toward fairness” would be more convincing if he took other steps in that direction, too.
Three years into his presidency, Obama has not introduced a plan for comprehensive tax reform – arguably the most important vehicle for fixing the nation’s finances and boosting long-term economic growth. His opponents haven’t done much better, but that doesn’t excuse the president’s failures: appointing the Simpson-Bowles commission and then disregarding its findings, offering a plan for business tax reform only, and issuing a series of platitudes.
A search of the White House website yields 17,400 mentions of the Buffett Rule – a proposal that would bring in $47 billion over 10 years, much of that from 22,000 wealthy households. By contrast, the alternative minimum tax gets fewer than 600 mentions on the site. The AMT, if not changed, will take about $1 trillion over a decade from millions of taxpayers, many of whom earn less than $200,000 a year.
Obama’s prioritization is no mystery: The populist Buffett Rule polls well. This explains its inclusion in countless presidential speeches and statements. White House reporters, tiring of the theme, have proposed a Jimmy Buffett Rule (three-drink minimum).
The politics of the Buffett Rule – it has no chance of passing when the Senate takes it up next week – are so overt that Obama’s remarks Wednesday were virtually indistinguishable from a section of his campaign speech in Florida on Tuesday.
Wednesday: “If we’re going to keep giving somebody like me or some of the people in this room tax breaks that we don’t need and we can’t afford, then one of two things happens: Either you’ve got to borrow more money to pay down a deeper deficit, or … you’ve got to tell seniors to pay a little bit more for their Medicare. You’ve got to tell the college student, ‘We’re going to have to charge you higher interest rates on your student loan.’ … That’s not right.”
Tuesday: “If somebody like me, who is doing just fine, gets tax breaks I don’t need and that the country can’t afford, then one of two things is going to happen: Either it gets added to our deficit … or, alternatively, you’ve got to take it away from somebody else – a student who’s trying to pay for their college, or a senior trying to get by with Social Security and Medicare. … That’s not right.”
Parts of Obama’s “official” speech will no doubt be repeated on the stump, including the points that “we just need some of the Republican politicians here in Washington to get on board with where the country is,” that Obama cut taxes 17 times (the bobbleheads nodded in agreement), and the contention that Republicans today would view Ronald Reagan as a “wild-eyed, socialist, tax-hiking class warrior.”
Nothing is inherently wrong with campaign-style rhetoric from the White House; George W. Bush used it repeatedly to pass his tax cuts and in his attempt at a Social Security overhaul. The pity is that Obama doesn’t use his unrivaled political skill to sell a tax plan of more consequence – and less gimmickry.
Dana Milbank writes for The Washington Post. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.