Larry Bartels argues that despite the popularity of president Obama's proposal to allow the tax cuts for richest 2% expire, the decision by Democratic leaders in Congress to adjourn without voting on the proposal was politically expedient:
On Taxes, an Energized Minority, by Larry Bartels, Model Politics: During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama skillfully crafted a popular position on renewing the big Bush-era tax cuts. Obama pledged to keep the lower tax rates for families earning less than $250,000 per year—the vast majority of American taxpayers—while letting the top tax rate revert to its 2000 level.
With the tax cuts set to expire at the end of this year President Obama has stuck to that position, despite a concerted effort by conservatives to insist that none of the tax cuts should be allowed to expire in the midst of a recession. What is more, he has managed to keep ... Americans on his side. A YouGov/Polimetrix survey fielded last week found that 42% of the public support the president’s position... Only 28% ... favor retaining all the tax cuts, including those for the richest taxpayers.
Despite this sustained public support for the president’s position, Democratic leaders in Congress were unwilling to bring the issue to a vote before adjourning last month. ... In light of the popular support for the president’s position, was that a political miscalculation?
Probably not. For one thing, likely voters in next week’s election are much more evenly divided in their views about the Bush tax cuts. ... This difference is partly due to the much-noted “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats. ... Even more importantly, the sizable minority of people who want the tax cuts for affluent taxpayers renewed seem to attach much more weight to this issue than the slim majority who want them to expire. ...
An even more lopsided difference appears in the impact of tax cut preferences on presidential approval. People who support President Obama’s position on this issue are only slightly more approving..., while those who want to renew all the tax cuts are moved about five times as far toward disapproving. ...
These differences in preference intensity cannot be explained in terms of simple self-interest. On average, the people who want to renew the tax cuts for top earners are somewhat more affluent than the population as a whole; but only 8% say they have household incomes of $150,000 or more... Half have household incomes of less than $50,000, and almost that many say they don’t even know anyone who earns more than $200,000 per year.
These results suggest that candidate Obama’s skillful-looking proposal to allow the tax cuts to expire only for the richest 2% of taxpayers has turned out to be very costly for President Obama and his party, despite its overall popularity. Of course, the president and his allies in Congress could still push to implement the proposal in a lame duck session. If they do, it will be a principled choice rather than a politically expedient one. For expedient politicians, an energized minority trumps a tepid majority every time.