The 3-Word Phrase That Signals Obama's Intentions on Taxes

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If you were to look no further than public opinion polls, the answer to the great question consuming Washington right now--how to bring down the deficit--would be obvious, at least for Democrats. By a large margin, the most popular method for debt reduction among the American public right now is to increase taxes on the rich. This week's Washington Post/ABC poll is only the latest in a long series of polls to bear that out. It found that 72 percent of respondents favored raising taxes on the wealthy, far and away the most popular option to bring down debt. Nothing else even came close. Ordinarily, the path of least public resistance is the safest one, politically speaking.

But it hasn't been the path that the White House has seemed particularly eager to follow. In December, President Obama signed a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, as part of a broader deal to help revive the economy. Many Democrats since then have worried, not unreasonably, that Obama wasn't going to emphasize tax increases on the wealthy as a major component of his deficit-reduction plans. That's why so many Democrats were cheered by the president's big speech on the budget at George Washington University last week, responding to the Republican budget that the House passed on Friday: it's clear that tax increases on the wealthy are a part of the plan (although even Democrats fully supportive of this can't seem to bring themselves to utter the phrase "tax increases"; instead, "revenue raises" seems to be the preferred euphemism.)

I knew that worrying about whether or not Obama would speak out in favor of raising taxes had been a preoccupation of liberal bloggers. But I hadn't quite realized, until I spent some time on the Hill this week, how much of a concern it also was for elected Democrats and their staffs. Because the president's speech was announced with such haste, and so few officials--including Democrats--were briefed, a lot of Democrats on the Hill had no idea what the president was going to say. They were pleasantly surprised. One phrase in particular sent a clear signal to them that Obama was going to take up taxes: it's when he said that "millionaires and billionaires" could afford to pay a little more. A cheer went up in the room where he was watching, one Democrat told me, when Obama uttered it. In fact, Obama used it four times.

Why is that phrase so special? I asked. The answer, I was told, is that research shows it's the phrase that most effectively frames the issue of raising taxes on the wealthy. Thus, when Obama invoked "millionaires and billionaires," he was signaling to his party that he means business. Click here to watch him say it:

Drop-down image credit: AP

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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