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Two-thirds of Americans support keeping the Bush tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 per year, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Good news for the Obama administration, right?

Not exactly. Fifty-one percent of respondents also said that eliminating the tax cut for families earning more than $250,000 per year was not acceptable. And half said they wanted to keep all the tax cuts in place permanently. In short, two thirds of the country wants something that one half of the country finds unacceptable. America! We contradict ourselves! We contain multitudes!

So, framing is fun, and polls are misleading. This is one reason why I'd caution liberals and Democrats to avoid reading too much into the flurry of surveys before this year that indicate high support for "rolling back the Bush tax breaks for the rich." When you frame a $70 billion-per-year tax increase as the smooth "rolling back" of a superfluous "break," the person on the other end of the phone, who cares much more about sitting down to dinner than asking for more context and Joint Tax estimates, is going to respond to vocabulary of the question.

By the same token, it's easy to frame the tax increase negatively: "Should we throw a $700 billion tax increase on the back of a weak economy if it's likely to disproportionately hit small business?" It's not hard to imagine that kind of framing destroying public support for raising the top two income brackets.

I guess my only point here is that if politicians and policy analysts are looking for the right direction on tax policy, public opinion polling offers limited guidance. For my part, I'd like to raise the top rates this year, but I don't see much support in Congress, so I'm holding out for a one-year extension in the hopes that we can find broader agreement on tax reform in 2011.



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