In a Dec. 7, 2010, press conference, President Barack Obama began the effort to sell a deal he struck with the Republican congressional leadership to extend the tax cuts initially passed under George W. Bush.
Under the agreement, the tax cuts will be extended for two years for all income brackets, rather than just for families below $250,000 and individuals below $200,000 in taxable income, as Obama had vowed during the campaign and as many congressional Democrats have preferred. In exchange for a temporary extension of the cuts for wealthier Americans -- which Republicans wanted -- the GOP agreed to extend federal unemployment benefits and tax cuts passed under Obama that were also set to expire at the end of the year.
As expected, Obama faced tough questions from the assembled reporters about his decision to give in to the GOP demand to extend tax cuts for all Americans.
The first question, from Associated Press reporter Ben Feller, was: "You've been telling the American people all along that you oppose extending the tax cuts for the wealthier Americans. You said that again today. But what you never said was that you opposed the tax cuts, but you'd be willing to go ahead and extend them for a couple of years if the politics of the moment demand it. So what I'm wondering is, when you take a stand like you had, why should the American people believe that you're going to stick with it? Why should the American people believe that you're not going to flip-flop?"
Obama said, in part, that "if there was not collateral damage -- if this was just a matter of my politics or being able to persuade the American people to my side -- then I would just stick to my guns, because the fact of the matter is the American people already agree with me. There are polls showing right now that the American people for the most part think it's a bad idea to provide tax cuts to the wealthy.
"But the issue is not me persuading the American people -- they're already there. The issue is how do I persuade the Republicans in the Senate who are currently blocking that position. I have not been able to budge them, and I don't think there's any suggestion anybody in this room thinks realistically that we can budge them right now."
We were intrigued by Obama's argument that the American people were with him in their preferences on tax policy, since a few days earlier we had fact-checked a statement by incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that was in some ways the mirror image of what Obama argued.
Boehner, in comments to reporters on Dec. 1, said that "the American people spoke pretty loudly. They said stop all the looming tax hikes...." We gauged the accuracy of Boehner's claim by looking at four public opinion polls taken since the election that asked questions about what should be done with the Bush tax cuts.
We concluded that the polls showed that while many Americans opposed an across-the-board expiration of the Bush tax cuts, it was not accurate for Boehner to say that the public spoke "pretty loudly" that Congress should "stop all the looming tax hikes." In fact, we found that a plurality of the "American people" actually supported what amounts to a tax hike for the wealthiest Americans. So we rated Boehner's comment False.
We'll add one new poll to the mix of those we used in the Boehner item. Here's the full data:
CBS News, Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 2010
The tax cuts should...
Continue for all: 26 percent
Continue for households below $250,000: 53 percent
Expire for all: 14 percent
USA Today/Gallup poll, Nov. 19-21, 2010
What do you think Congress should do about the income tax cuts passed under George W. Bush that are set to expire at the end of this year?
Keep the tax cuts for all Americans regardless of income: 40 percent
Keep the tax cuts, but set new limits on how much of wealthy Americans' income is eligible for the lower rates: 44 percent
Allow the tax cuts to expire: 13 percent
A follow-up question clarified where Americans would draw that income line, using some widely discussed income thresholds.
Keep tax cuts for all: 40 percent
Keep tax cuts up to $1 million income: 5 percent
Keep tax cuts up to $500,000 income: 12 percent
Keep tax cuts up to $250,000 income: 26 percent
Let tax cuts expire: 13 percent
Associated Press-CNBC poll, Nov. 18-22, 2010
The tax cuts that were passed in 2001 will expire this year if they are not continued. Which of the following best describes what you think Congress should do about the tax cuts?
Continue the tax cuts for everyone: 34 percent
Allow the tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 to expire, but continue them for other people: 50 percent
Allow the tax cuts to expire for everyone: 14 percent
NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Nov. 11-15, 2010
Congress will soon decide whether to keep in place the existing tax cuts enacted during President Bush’s time in office, or allow them to expire. Which one of the following options would be your preference for what they should do?
Keep in place the tax cuts for everyone permanently: 23 percent
Keep in place all the tax cuts for everyone for another year to three years: 23 percent
Eliminate the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 per year, but keep them for those earning less than that: 39 percent
Eliminate all the tax cuts permanently: 10 percent
Quinnipiac poll, Nov. 8-15, 2010
How should Congress vote on the Bush-era tax cuts: continue them for all, continue them only for families who earn less than $250,000 a year, or let them expire for all?
Continue for all: 35 percent
Continue for those below $250,000: 43 percent
Expire for all: 14 percent
How about if this was the choice on tax cuts; continue them for all, continue them only for families who earn less than $500,000 a year, or let them expire for all?
Continue for all: 33 percent
Continue for those below $500,000: 40 percent
Expire for all: 18 percent
So do those results support Obama’s claim?
He said that the polls show that people "for the most part think it’s a bad idea to provide tax cuts to the wealthy."
The polls largely support Obama’s claim because they show that only a minority of people -- 23 to 40 percent -- favor extending the tax cuts to every income level.
There’s modest support for Obama’s point from poll respondents who wanted to see the tax cuts continue for those below a certain threshold but expire for those above that threshold. And those respondents ranged from 39 percent to 53 percent in the five polls.
So overall, the poll numbers support Obama’s general point, but they don’t fully justify his claim that "the American people for the most part think it’s a bad idea." Actually, in most of the polls just a plurality says that. On balance, we rate his statement Mostly True.