BOCA RATON, Fla.— President Obama intensified his populist pitch Tuesday, aggressively making the case that the wealthiest Americans should pay more in taxes and taking Republicans to task for opposing the “Buffett Rule.”
Speaking just minutes after Rick Santorum dropped out of the GOP presidential contest, Obama drew a distinct contrast with Mitt Romney without mentioning the GOP front-runner by name and attempted to portray himself as more in touch with middle-class voters at a time when some doubt that his policies have helped the economy.
Romney’s campaign fought back with a pre-buttle, setting up a conference call with reporters where surrogates for Romney blasted Obama’s handling of the economy while pointing to job losses under his administration.
The back-and-forth in the shadow of Santorum’s announcement highlighted the fact that the 2012 election has firmly shifted from GOP primaries to a general-election battle between Obama and Romney.
Democrats have been pushing the tax issue for months, but as the general election begins, the Obama campaign is taking the issue to a fever pitch.
It believes the Buffett Rule can be an effective political weapon against Romney, whose 2010 tax returns show he and his wife, Ann, paid a 14 percent tax rate on $27 million in income. Much of Romney’s income came from capital gains, which has a 15 percent tax rate.
Obama took aim at Republicans for “doubling down” on the same economic policies he said led to the recession, and touted the Buffett Rule, which states that millionaires should pay at least as high a tax rate as the middle class.
“You might have heard of this,” Obama said in his remarks, before a crowd of faculty and students at Florida Atlantic University. “But Warren Buffett is paying a lower tax rate than his secretary.
“Now, that’s wrong,” he added. “That’s not fair, and so we’ve got to choose which direction we want to go in as a country. Do we want to keep giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans like me or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates? People who don’t need them and never ask for them? Or do we want to keep investing in things that will grow our economy and keep us secure? That’s the choice.”
Romney’s campaign fired back at the president by mocking him for supporting the “Obama Rule,” which it said held that families and businesses must be taxed more “so that government can grow.”
“President Obama has made it clear that raising taxes is the one campaign promise he will keep,” Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director, said in a statement. “Mitt Romney wants to lower the tax rate so that more Americans can keep their hard-earned money and small businesses can begin to grow and hire.”
The Romney campaign also made the counterargument that Obama’s policies have led to steep job losses, particularly for women.
“There’s something we haven’t heard,” former U.S. Treasurer Bay Buchanan said during a call with reporters before Obama’s remarks. “That is the damage this administration has done to the women in the workplace.
“One million women have lost their jobs under this administration,” she said.
The argument is meant to address a growing gender gap between Romney and Obama that shows the president leading Romney among female voters by 19 percent, according to a new poll released Tuesday by ABC News and The Washington Post.
The Romney campaign followed the call up with a release that, citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, said 92.3 percent of job losses under Obama were women.
Obama’s remarks in Florida come six days before the Senate is expected to vote on legislation introduced by Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats draw red lines in spending fight What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling Climate hawks pressure Biden to replace Fed chair MORE (D-R.I.) that would require taxpayers with an annual income of $1 million a year or more to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent.
The legislation faces tough opposition and is expected to fail. But the White House believes the issue can be a political winner for Obama by forcing Republican senators to vote against higher taxes on millionaires.
A report released on Tuesday by the Obama administration says that the top-earning 0.1 percent of taxpayers are paying just over a quarter of their income in taxes now, roughly half the percentage they did a half-century ago.
The report also contends the tax rate for the middle class has not moved much over that same time span, while incomes for the highest earners have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.
During his address in Florida, Obama aimed to hammer home those points, saying the wealthy should carry their fair share.
“You shouldn’t get special tax breaks,” he said on Tuesday. “You shouldn’t be able to get special loopholes.”
Obama urged the faculty and students to call, write and even tweet their lawmakers, to tell them, “Don’t give tax breaks to folks like me who don’t need them.”
Republicans say Obama is playing “class warfare” with the Buffett Rule and argue Monday’s Senate vote is a political stunt aimed at drawing attention to Romney’s tax returns and away from the president’s handling of the economy.
But on a conference call with reporters on Monday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said, “We don’t envy success in this country. We all strive to achieve it.
“But we also know that anyone who does well for themselves should do their fair share in return,” he said. “The Buffett Rule will help make our system reflect our values so that all Americans play by the same rules, do their fair share and get a shot at success.”
While Obama didn’t take a direct shot at Romney, Messina did in a Monday email to supporters.
“Not only does Mitt Romney oppose the Buffett Rule, but he wants to protect special breaks and loopholes that help wealthy Americans like himself avoid paying their fair share,” Messina wrote.
— Updated at 8:31 p.m.