Political Animal


September 20, 2011 2:15 PM If a tax cut falls in a forest…

By Steve Benen

When Hill staffers are occasionally surveyed for their thoughts on lawmakers — nicest boss, most demanding, etc. — Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama never gets any votes in the “smartest senator” category. But despite his limitations, even he should be above comments like these, which Shelby made on NPR this morning about President Obama’s economic agenda.

“Oh you mean his big tax increase and all that? Absolutely, I have a lot of reaction to it. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s like the son of stimulus. It’s always more taxes and not enough cuts.”

Shelby’s argument about Obama and “more taxes” reminded me of a recent item I’ve been meaning to share from the Center for American Progress’ Michael Linden and Michael Ettlinger. The piece poses a question I’d love Shelby to consider.

If you had to guess whether President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama cut taxes more in his first term, which one would you choose? Probably President Bush, right? After all, the “the Bush tax cuts” were massive. And President Obama is the one calling for the expiration of some of those tax cuts. He’s also pushing for more revenue as we try to address our long-term fiscal imbalance.

Given all that, you could be forgiven for guessing that President Bush is the bigger tax cutter. But you’d actually be wrong. By the end of his first term, President Obama will have signed into law a series of tax cuts that, taken together, exceed the value of those signed into law by President Bush.

This image captures the point in stark terms:

And yet, this appears to be a well-kept secret. Indeed, Shelby probably even thinks he’s right when he says the president’s agenda “always” includes “more taxes.”

And plenty of people will believe him. A few weeks before the 2010 midterms, the NYT had a fascinating item, noting voters who received tax cuts, but who were certain Obama had raised their taxes. It wasn’t even close to true, but their perceptions were clouded by nonsense.

In fact, I also remember shortly after Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, the right seemed annoyed that the president noted the tax cuts he and congressional Democrats had approved. National Review ran one piece that said Obama “strained credulity” with the claim about tax cuts. The same magazine ran another item insisting, “If the taxes of 95 percent of Americans actully [sic] had been cut, surely somebody other than Obama would have noticed.”

For the right, this is somehow a subjective question. Whether Obama cut taxes seems to be a matter of opinion. Sure, the president says he cut taxes for millions of Americans, but since people didn’t really notice, the argument goes, then maybe it didn’t happen.

Whether it’s widely realized or not, it did happen. We can debate whether the tax cuts were wise or effective; we shouldn’t debate whether they occurred in reality.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • RepublicanPointOfView on September 20, 2011 2:23 PM:

    As the esteemed Frank Luntz says "It is not what you say, but what people hear!"

    We republicans have conquered the art of speaking to the emotions of people and getting them to turn off the thinking side of their brains.

    In words that you simpleton dumbocrats can understand:
    - Truth ain't got a f*cking thing to do with what we say
    - We create our own reality
    - Facts are not relevant to our messages to voters
    - It is time to return a white to the White House & the socialist, commie, liberal, anti-Christian n!gger has to go

  • c u n d gulag on September 20, 2011 2:25 PM:

    But, but, but, those weren't tax cuts for the "RIGHT" people!!!

  • Burr Deming on September 20, 2011 2:25 PM:

    I don't see it as a simple case of political deafness. I think the misimpression is widely shared. And I think it's largely a symptom of a reporting ethic that thinks reporting measurable facts is a sign of bias.

  • skeptonomist on September 20, 2011 2:30 PM:

    The Bush tax cuts were not much in comparison to the huge cuts 1964-1987, or even to the Clinton raises. Restoring reasonable federal income is going to take a lot more than letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

  • Peter C on September 20, 2011 2:35 PM:

    "It wasn’t even close to true, but their perceptions were clouded by nonsense."

    NO, not nonsense. Their perceptions were clouded by deliberate, orchestrated lies and misinformation. As a nation, we do not suffer from mass stupitity. We suffer from carefully nurtured ignorance inflicted upon our citizens by FOX News and the corporate media.

    The Republicans have realized that there is NO DOWNSIDE to constantly and continually lying, and they've built a whole network for SOLELY that purpose.

  • Dredd on September 20, 2011 2:38 PM:

    Good point.

    The public is that forest. We are the Ents.

  • Werewolf on September 20, 2011 2:49 PM:


  • T2 on September 20, 2011 2:56 PM:

    Obama is not allowed credit for any good things he does. That's just part of the goal to keep him to one term. Sort of like constantly saying "we're still waiting for the President to give us a plan to create jobs"....to which the Media just says, "thank you for being with us"........instead of "Gee Mr. McConnell, he's had several plans you've ignored".

  • square1 on September 20, 2011 2:59 PM:

    Shorter Steve Benen: George Bush ran the country's economy into the ground with reckless and unsustainable tax cuts and Barack Obama has saved the economy by increasing the tax cuts.

    Did someone say something about Senator Shelby not making sense?

  • riiiiigght.... on September 20, 2011 3:24 PM:

    Shorter idiot: The poor and the middle class SPEND tax cuts, thus putting the money back in the economy. The wealthy hoard it and enrich only themselves. Senator Shelby is lying when he whinges about tax cuts. He, like you, are purposefully ignorant.

  • Monala on September 20, 2011 3:31 PM:

    @ Peter C,

    But how in the world does deliberate misinformation work with something as concrete as one's taxes?

    I get that the rightwing noise machine can deceive people about issues that are a little removed from them. So yeah, Obama's going to take your guns, and even though you haven't seen evidence of it yet, who knows what Obama is planning behind closed doors.

    But taxes are right there in your face. You filled them out or paid someone to do it last year, and you did the same this year. Many times, you need last year's taxes right in front of you while you complete this year's. You know what you paid or were refunded last year, and you know the same this year. (Frex, I know that my 2010 refund was much higher than 2009).

    So how can people, when something is as concrete and in their face as what they're paying in taxes, somehow believe that tax decreases are increases?

  • Monala on September 20, 2011 3:36 PM:

    And dang it, I just read Benen's article, "Bachmann helps bolster Obama's point," about a business owner whose business depends 80% on government contracts, who is supporting Bachmann because he's against government spending. Another example of "in your face" stupidity.

  • DZ on September 20, 2011 3:40 PM:

    "Shorter Steve Benen: George Bush ran the country's economy into the ground with reckless and unsustainable tax cuts and Barack Obama has saved the economy by increasing the tax cuts. Did someone say something about Senator Shelby not making sense?"

    It's always a good idea to comprehend what one reads before making comments about it.

    Benen clearly says that the wisdom and efficacy of Obama's tax cuts can be debated. What is crystal clear --- and the point of the post --- is that Obama has cut taxes more than Bush, despite what Shelby and the GOP want you to believe.

  • apm on September 20, 2011 3:50 PM:

    So how can people, when something is as concrete and in their face as what they're paying in taxes, somehow believe that tax decreases are increases?

    Perhaps cutting taxes isn't as important an issue as people say it is. A smart Republican admin. would raise revenue by raising taxes but telling everyone they were cut.

  • T-Rex on September 20, 2011 3:50 PM:

    To a Republican it makes perfect sense. "Obama must have raised taxes, because that's what liberals do. He must be an angry man with a Commie agenda because that's what black men are. It doesn't matter if no one has seen any evidence of either; that only proves that he hides his true agenda very cleverly. But we all know that the leopard doesn't change his spots and the Ethiopian (or Kenyan) doesn't change his skin. QED."

    Captcha says "Chomsky, ndsposes."

  • square1 on September 20, 2011 4:23 PM:

    Benen clearly says that the wisdom and efficacy of Obama's tax cuts can be debated.

    Yes...in this particular post. What I take issue with is the sum total of Benen's posts which, when taken together, demonstrate a profound incoherence. Benen's only constant is that Republicans are always to blame and Obama always can be excused.

    On occasions too numerous to mention, Benen has claimed that Bush drove the economy into a ditch and Obama has done all that practically could be done to reverse course. This is his general thesis.

    But Benen never says WHAT caused the economy to go into the ditch in the first place. Merely that it happened -- like magic! -- on Bush's watch; therefore Bush is to blame.

    As for Obama, he is never truly to blame. If Democrats criticize Obama for tax cuts...Don't blame Obama! The GOP made him do it. If Republicans criticize Obama for wanting tax increases...Don't blame Obama! Look at all the tax cuts on his watch.

    Like magic, whatever the policy (e.g. tax cuts, tax increases, austerity cuts or stimulus spending), Obama always deserves the credit for the good stuff and none of the blame for the bad.

    Frankly, I couldn't give a damn what Shelby says. I was pretty sure that Obama JUST ANNOUNCED support for a major tax increase. If Shelby doesn't support that policy and wants to criticize Obama, so what?

    Or is Obama's proposed tax increase for millionaires no longer operative? Did the withering criticism of Shelby cause the White House to walk that back already?

  • Mac on September 20, 2011 4:38 PM:

    Steve, it looks like you are counting the continuation of the Bush tax cuts as Obama tax cuts. is this right? If so then the bar plot is misleading.

  • c.red on September 20, 2011 5:27 PM:

    Going to say that given the economic situation and the reasoning behind these cuts, and more or less supported them. But, as a whole, I don't think this is a winning point - particularly when you have been pushing the line "Bush Tax Cuts were highly irresponsible" for the six years I've been reading you.

    I also noticed including the Bush tax cut extension in this total. I get why you could include that, Obama signed it, but some sort of disclaimer should go on there.

  • Birdman on September 21, 2011 1:59 AM:

    Is pointing out that Obama has cut more taxes than Bush meant to be a compliment to Obama? Even the President now agrees that additional revenues must be part of any deficit solution, so why is he trying to outdo Bush on tax cutting?