Occupy Wall Street's reverberations have finally crossed into the political realm, as prominent Democrats at all levels of government have begun echoing the movement's lambasting of the under-representation of the poor and unemployed, along with capitalism's ills. From the President to Congress to State houses, it appears liberal politicos are banking on an anti-rich sentiment consuming Americans, and are pushing legislation to prove it. For the first time in a while, Democrats appear comfortable wearing Keynesian hearts on their sleeves.
Take, first and foremost, the inimitable centrist President Barack Obama (though many have deemed him two degrees short of Karl Marx on the socialism scale). At a stump speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Obama postured as a defender of the middle class in the battle against inequality.
"This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules," Obama said, adding, "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class."
Obama Singles-Out Top 1 Percent
The president chose the venue, a notably conservative chunk of middle America, to deliver an emphatic push for a payroll tax cut being mulled (and currently watered down) in Congress. One could argue his talking points were cribbed from Occupy Wall Street.
Decrying what he termed "breathtaking greed," Obama noted the top 1 percent of earners have seen their income inflate to $1.2 million a year -- a 250 percent increase -- while middle income growth has remained stagnant.
"At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement," he said.
It's a decidedly Liberal - capital L - tone from a president too often lamented by his own supporters for having the spine of a jelly fish. For the first time in almost two years (since the health care overhaul debate), Obama is actually attacking his political opponents from the left -- in as Republican a state as any in the union no less.
It's a fight Obama picked himself, though he has stayed away from Capitol Hill and waged the battle in a series of speeches over the last few weeks. Senate Democrats recently picked up a choice chunk of the president's languishing jobs bill which would lower payroll taxes for employees and employers, offsetting the expense by instituting a surtax on incomes over a $1 million. Democrats have been largely adamant in marrying one to the other, forcing Republicans to argue against a tax cut that would help middle-income families to spare the rich a 3.25 percent increase.
The payroll tax cut's emergence follows the Occupy movement's own tribulations, with protesters being evicted from various locations throughout the country. Obama has yet to address the movement directly, but his policy positions as he swings into campaign mode have had a decided bias towards the now-mythical "99 percent."
Occupy Wall Street Influenced the Debate, A Little
The tact has largely worked, but in surprising ways. It has pitted Republicans against themselves, causing mixed messages to come out of a party known for its uniformity of purpose and thought. Witness Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., fails to get members of his own caucus behind a Republican answer to the payroll tax bill. Watch, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, resorts to lacing Republican pet projects into a payroll tax bill that is still reportedly disdained by a broad swath of his caucus.
Republicans' insistence on defending low marginal rates for top earners is starting to become an albatross around the party's neck. A recent Pew Research Center analysis has shown the Tea Party's platform is cannibalizing its support. Dems likely feel they've got Republicans against the ropes, as voters are starting to show a floor to how low they're willing to allow cuts without revenue increases.
California, New York Tax Discussions: Indicative of a Trend?
But Obama is not necessarily leading the charge. In a bicoastal push, Democratic governors in New York and California are both mulling changes to their states' tax structure that would ease the burden of middle class families at the expense of the higher income earners. Their work banks on the belief that most voters are willing to disassociate high earners with "job creators," in exchange for sustained or improved government services.
In California, a glut of ballot initiatives will likely land on November 2012's general election ballot. The battery of possible legislation includes an expansion of the sales tax to services, while reducing taxes on people and corporations. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing his own income tax surcharge on top earners -- particularly the 1 percent.
The posturing is supported by data. According to a Los Angeles Times and University of Southern California survey, 64 percent of respondents expressed a willingness to pay more in taxes if they went towards classic government services such as education.
In New York, a deal struck by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders in both houses in Albany would lower income taxes for middle class New Yorkers while increasing the rate on higher earners.
"While I am against higher taxes, and I believe our long-term economic future for this state is enhanced by in fact lowering taxes to make us more competitive, to deal with this emergency, short-term, we do need additional revenue," Cuomo said. "If I were to close the entire gap by budget cuts, it would decimate essential services, doing real harm to the state's economy and strangling local governments all across this state."
Cuomo, much like Obama, is dealing with a politically divided legislature. Yet over the course of some time, even the sheepishly red Republicans that control the New York State Senate came around to raising taxes on the rich.
"This comprehensive plan will reduce the tax rate for middle-class families to their lowest levels in more than 50 years, create thousands of new private sector jobs and begin to turn our economy around," said State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
The move is particularly startling for Cuomo, who was elected on the steadfast promise to balance the State's fiscal books through cuts in admittedly generous state spending. But his change of heart was cemented after conducting an in-house poll on how palatable tax increases were to voters, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Clearly, the results were shown in the Cuomo's quick 180 and subsequent push for a deal. Congressional Democrats, emboldened, will look to take the New York governor's tactics to the national stage.
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