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Burying Your Victories: What if Obama Taxed the Rich But Never Told Anyone?

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Did you know Obama's health care bill contained a $20 billion a year tax on the richest Americans? I didn't until I stumbled onto a mention of this the other day, although writing about politics is my life and I knew enough to be angry at the gutting of a national public option. I asked a dozen other friends, half of whom work in health care or health care policy and most of whom are fellow political junkies. None of them knew either. If those who follow these issues intensely don't know about something that all of us would cheer as a step toward getting the wealthiest to pay their fair share, most American voters sure aren't going to know either.

The tax supports Medicare and low-income health care subsidies. Beginning in 2013, it will bring in $210 billion over 10 years by charging households that make over $250,000 a year 3.8% on everything over that amount. The provision also applies to investment and dividend income, a key precedent toward ensuring that billionaires pay at least the same share of taxes as self-employed carpenters. It got some modest coverage when it passed, and accountants certainly know about it. But the rest of us don't, and that makes me mad.

I don't remember any point when Obama highlighted it, even as his base and the American public and his own base became steadily more demoralized from a sense that his administration was more willing to fight for Wall Street than Main Street. This doesn't completely erase his caving on temporarily extending the Bush tax cuts. But it begins to cut the other way, requiring the top 1% (well actually the top 2%), to carry a bit more of their share. For most people, though, it might as well never have happened, because Obama neglected to tell them.

I don't know why he hasn't highlighted this success story. Maybe he considered it too wonkish. Maybe Rahm Emanuel convinced him that the issue was a political loser, though polls consistently support higher taxes on the wealthy. Maybe it's Obama's reluctance to take controversial stands. But if he wants to convince ordinary Americans that our fates are indeed tied together, he'd better start embracing those moments where his administration has actually made progress, while continuing to talk about how far we have to go. Since Occupy Wall Street, Obama's started to speak out more forcefully, as in his powerful recent Teddy Roosevelt speech about America's economic divides. Yet here's an example, and I know there are others, where he's actually required those at the top to start carrying a bit more of their fair share, yet said next to nothing to let the rest of us know. It's long overdue that he begin.

Paul Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen, with 130,000 copies in print including a newly updated second edition now being used in hundreds of schools to promote civic engagement. He's also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul's articles directly www.paulloeb.org/subscribe.html You can sign up here for his Huffington Post pieces.