What Americans think about taxing the rich

President Obama speaks with Jason McLaughlin, his wife, Ali, and their 4-year-old son, Cooper, about middle class tax cuts at their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on July 10, 2012.

Kai Ryssdal: Tax the rich. Don't tax anybody. It'll hurt the economy. The economy won't care. That -- in four short sentences -- is the essence of the presidential campaign so far this week. President Obama held a high-profile event Monday to make his desires for the Bush tax cuts clear. Governor Romney has been responding in kind. Not much discussed, though, is what Americans actually think about the whole thing.

Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup, is here once again for a segment we call Attitude Check. Hey Frank, how are you?

Frank Newport: Doing fine, Kai.

Ryssdal: So taxes, the president as you know made a big tax pitch earlier this week, it is the theme, I guess, of the campaign this week. Here's the thing though, how do taxes play in Peoria?

Newport: That's an interesting question. The idea of increased taxes on the rich, however you define it, plays well with the average American. Most of them don't make that much so they say, sure why not. I don't think, however, that taxes are the key issue per se for Americans. The priority is how are you going to fix the economy and how are you going to create more jobs? 

Ryssdal: Can you specify? Are they 10th, are they 20th, are they 349th on the list? Do we know?

Newport: Ah, 347th [laughs]. 

Ryssdal: Right, a lot of this probably is self-identification, if you percieve yourself to be middle class or lower middle class, you think one way, and you know, upper middle class, another way?

Newport: That's right. Although, Kai, I have to say, very few Americans claim the label upper class and rich. Most of us want to think of ourselves, no matter how much we make, as middle class or working class -- those are the two big labels. But absolutely, your view on raising taxes, even for the rich, is highly related to your socioeconomic status, and of course, it's highly political. 

Ryssdal: My guess would be, and this is a rare instance of me guessing the answer to a question before I ask it, do Americans think they are taxed too much right now?

Newport: Well you didn't guess the answer, you just asked a question.

Ryssdal: [Laughs] Ok, that was pretty good, my answer is yes, Americans think they are taxed too much.

Newport: They do in general, but actually that has come down. We saw after the Bush tax cuts a decrease, so Americans I think are less concerned about the burden of taxes now than they have been at a lot of previous points. 

Ryssdal: Does the whole political background of the Bush-era tax cuts register? You know, we're talking about raising taxes or resetting taxes -- it's an intensely political beast.

Newport: It certainly is and I don't think that it is highly on the radar now, but trust me, it will be in the Fall and December, because they expire then. And I think it will be a tremendous issue for Americans, not only if congress just lets them all expire so everybody pays more taxes, but also the political theater.

Ryssdal: You know what's funny though, December just feels so far away given all that we have to go through to get from here to there. 

Newport: You are absolutely right, November 6th, we are all going to vote on a new president. But after that vote, all eyes are going to be on these looming deadlines at the end of the year.

Ryssdal: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, thanks a lot.

Newport: My pleasure. 

About the author

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

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