What High Ground?

Obama’s Tax Rate Hypocrisy

He says it’s ‘not right’ for multimillionaires to pay less in taxes than their secretaries, but he’s done just that for years. It’s just another way Obama has lost his moral authority.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Barack Obama paid a lower tax rate than his secretary in 2013.

But that’s nothing new. He paid a lower tax rate the year before. And he paid a lower tax rate the year before.

Is that bad?

Here’s Obama describing people like himself, multimillionaires who pay less than their secretaries:

“When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference—like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right.”

It’s puzzling that the president of the United States would choose to take a course of action that he has publicly denounced as “not right.”

In 2013 the Obamas paid 20.4 percent in federal income taxes. In 2012, they paid 18.4 percent. In 2011, they paid 20.5 percent; that was on $789,674 and it was when the president was busy promoting the “Buffett Rule” of higher taxes, so that no secretary would ever pay more than his or her millionaire boss. The president’s low tax rate prompted the White House to admit, begrudgingly, that it was “slightly lower” than that of his secretary, who made $95,000.

It’s not unusual for politicians to frame an issue along moral grounds and then decline to live up to those standards in ways large and small. It happens every time a politician gets caught in a sex flap, like the Republican congressman recently caught kissing a staffer in his office. (This sex in the office tendency for politicians never seems to end well.) Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-IN), a decorated Korean War veteran, coined the phrase “war wimps” to describe “someone who is all too willing to send others to war but never got ’round to going himself.”

Obama isn’t a tax cheat. He’s paying what the law requires. The problem lies in the danger of describing those who obey the law as doing something they know is “not right.”

It’s a habit of Obama’s to assume a moral superiority based on his words, not his actions. In 2008 he became the first major party nominee for president since Nixon not to accept public financing; he announced his decision in a video proclaiming his support for public financing. He denounces money from special interests and raises more money from Wall Street than any president in history. He praises press freedom, yet the lawyer for The New York Times during the Pentagon Papers concludes: “President Obama will surely pass Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom.”

Here’s press secretary Jay Carney last week trying to explain why the president is pushing equal pay for women but on the White House staff, women make 88 percent of what men make:

Q: But why is that the median salary of women in the White House is 88 percent of men then?

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MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that we have—as an institution here—have aggressively addressed this challenge. And obviously, though, at the 88 cents that you cite, that is not 100, but it is better than the national average.

OK. But if Obama is CEO of the White House, why not set an example and say, “Gee, make it better than the national average”?

The danger of making everything a moral fight and not living up to one’s own standards is that pretty soon nothing becomes a moral fight. There’s hardly anything more annoying than being lectured to “eat your peas” by someone happily seated at the dessert table. That may be one of the keys to why the latest CBS/NYT poll shows that the president has become far more unpopular than many of his policies. Obama has a 41 percent approval, while a policy like raising the minimum wage to $10.10 is favored by two-thirds of the public.

Inevitably, some will argue that this rise in the president’s unfavorable rating is tied to race. It’s an impossible argument on either side, but one can only note that this same president once had a 79 percent favorable rating.

Moral authority is a key governing tool of a president and terribly difficult to replace once lost. As the Iraq War went badly and the Hurricane Katrina recovery turned disastrous, President Bush lost much of his once-powerful ability to rally a cause. Today the West is crying out for a leader to unite world opinion against Vladimir Putin’s aggression. We need a strong voice with moral conviction backed by the unwavering assumption that he means what he says.

Does anyone believe President Obama is filling that need?