Jonathan Cohn

Defending Obama on Taxes

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Why is Obama giving Republicans an extension of upper income tax cuts when polls show Americans overwhelmingly oppose them? Maybe because those polls don't translate into leverage on Capitol Hill.

Political scientist and blogger Brendan Nyhan makes the case:

First, public opinion in more conservative states is likely to be less favorable to Obama's original position than national polls. Several of these states are represented by senators whose votes Obama needed and failed to get (e.g., Ben Nelson from Nebraska, Jim Webb from Virginia, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, etc.).

Second, support for the plan may be weaker among likely voters. For instance, the 2010 electorate that senators just observed was divided on the issue between Obama and the GOP (with an additional 15% favoring full repeal):

Thirty-nine percent of voters wanted these tax cuts continued for all Americans, but about as many, 37 percent, wanted them continued only for families with incomes under $250,000 a year. The rest, 15 percent favored letting them expire for all.

Finally, as Princeton's Larry Bartels noted before the election, supporters of extending the tax cuts for all Americans have more intense preferences than opponents.

...

Liberals may find it comforting to blame the tax cut deal on the White House's tactical failures, but Obama was playing a much weaker hand than most people realize.

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