Do Americans care about the Buffett Rule?

The Obama administration has been arguing strongly this week for the Buffett Rule, which would raise taxes on those making $1 million a year or more. According to the latest Gallup polls, a majority of Americans are in favor of it.

Kai Ryssdal: It's fair to stipulate, I think, that there's little that's going to happen in the American economy the next, what, seven months or so that's not going to be politicized somehow. Rightly or wrongly, depending on how you lean politically.

Exhibit A this week is the Buffett Rule, the White House proposal to raise taxes on those making a million dollars or more. But as with all things political, what people really think is what matters.

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of Gallup. He's with us every week for an Attitude Check -- ours not his -- our partnership exploring what Americans think about the news of the day. Frank, it's good to talk to you again.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you, Kai.

Ryssdal: So the political calculus that the White House is making with the Buffett Rule is obviously that people think taxing rich people is a good idea. Is the White House right?

Newport: Yes. The two words I would use here are poll-tested. We just tested it; we asked Americans. The way we defined it, the Buffett Rule per se, was a minimum of 30 percent that had to be paid for all households making $1 million or more a year in income. Now, actually I believe the Buffett Rule would be phased in for those making between $1 million and $2 million, but nevertheless, that's how we shorthanded it. We found 6 in 10 favored, a little more than a third were opposed to it. There was a Reuters poll last month in March which found the same thing: 64 percent supported it. A month before that, an AP poll: 65 percent supported it. So it's no question that if you test the idea in isolation, it passes with flying colors.

Ryssdal: Right. 'In isolation' being the key phrase, right? Because nothing in this political economy in which we live happens in isolation. So where does this tax issue fall on the list of things that people really care about?

Newport: Well that's the key. Those who oppose it -- and that would be of course the Republicans and now the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney -- have to come up with ways to counter it, even though in isolation, it passes. One thing is, and an answer to your question perhaps -- this is not the highest priority for the average American. The most important problem facing the country now continues to be the economy in general, and jobs more specifically; and then the deficit below that. So the real challenge for the Obama administration, the Obama presidential campaign, in their championing this rule is to tie it in to the broader economy.

Ryssdal: Is it possible, Frank, that with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming up at the end of the year and this issue of whether or not taxes should be raised on people making $250,000 a year -- forget $1 million -- that the White House is sort of trying to prime the pump a little bit? How do we feel about raising taxes on people making $250,000 a year?

Newport: You know, that's very astute analysis and I think that probably this is probably the leading salvo in this whole effort to argue on the part of the Obama administration that taxes should be increased on those who make more money. And when we've tested $250,000 or more -- not $1 million, but $250,000 -- we still find majority support for that idea. So no matter how you phrase it, whatever you set the limit at, in isolation again, Americans say yes, that's not a bad idea.

Ryssdal: And perhaps that's because the slice of Americans making more than $250,000 and certainly more than $1 million is pretty small?

Newport: That's right. Most of us don't make that much money, so it's quite easy when a pollster calls you up and says: What about the idea of taxing the rich? People say sure. But again, I would re-emphasize, Kai, that this is not the highest priority for the average American. And that's the real challenge that the Obama administration faces: How do you tie this 'increase taxes on the rich' to the broader concerns of the average American, and that is goosing the economy?

Ryssdal: Right. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup. The segment we do with them every week is called Attitude Check. Frank, thanks a lot.

Newport: You bet.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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