What 2008 tells us about the 2011 fight over taxes

President Obama has presented an economic agenda that appears pretty popular. Several recent polls show strong, bipartisan support, both for the job creation measures, and the ideas for debt reduction.

The NYT‘s Matt Bai, however, urges caution, because the president now supports “a proposed tax increase on the wealthy.” Bai, who calls the tax push the president’s “signature issue,” argues, “No matter how popular such a tax increase may be in isolation, Obama’s proposal is very likely to affirm the fears of some sizable contingent of voters who pulled the lever for him last time — fears that he is, at bottom, a conventional liberal of the 1970s variety.”

There are quite a few problems with this analysis. For one thing, the tax provisions are not the president’s “signature issue,” at least not for those who view the plan outside the lens of Fox News. They’re part of a larger financing package, but if anything is the “signature issue,” it’s Obama’s near-constant talk about infrastructure, which he pushed again today along the Ohio-Kentucky border.

For another, even this focus on tax policy is overly narrow. Bai neglects to mention that while the White House is eyeing increased sacrifice from the very wealthy starting in 2013, the president is also calling for significant tax breaks for the middle class and small businesses almost immediately. Is this also reminiscent of “a conventional liberal of the 1970s variety”? Or are these provisions too often ignored because they fail to fit into the preferred media narrative about Obama being a “tax raiser” on “job creators”?

But perhaps the most jarring part of Bai’s observation is the notion that Obama will give voters the wrong impression by pursuing a tax policy that Bai concedes is “popular.” Once the electorate knows the president wants higher taxes on the rich, the argument goes, voters who reluctantly backed him in 2008 will be repulsed.

As Greg Sargent explained, there’s one big piece of evidence that points in the opposite direction: the 2008 presidential election.

The notion that Obama’s current push to raise taxes on the rich will alienate his own 2008 supporters is complicated a bit by the fact that Obama campaigned on tax hikes for the rich in 2008. Indeed, that was a topic of widespread analysis at the time: Many commentators noted that Obama appeared to be winning on the issue of taxes, even though Dems aren’t supposed to be able to do this. On the eve of the election, the Washington Post noted with wonderment that despite his call for letting the tax cut on those over $250,000 expire, “for the first time in decades, Democrats appear to have the upper hand in the debate over taxes.” […]

Obama is certainly going to lose a “sizable contingent of voters who pulled the lever for him last time,” but it’s hard to see why a primary impetus for this would be that he’s campaigning aggressively on the very same position he held when they voted for him last time. I’m open to the suggestion that Obama’s restatement of a position he’s held for years will suddenly revive fears of bad old conventional 1970s liberalism among his supporters, even though it didn’t last time around, but such a pronouncement is crying out for a bit of evidence to back it up.

Bai’s not the only one drawing these dubious conclusions, of course, but it is striking to see the disconnect between the American mainstream and pundits’ assumptions about the American mainstream.