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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher June 17, 2012

GOP leader Reince Priebus says Obama wants to raise lowest income tax rate by half

When Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus talked with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren on June 5, 2012, it was primarily to discuss Gov. Scott Walker’s victory that night in the historic Wisconsin recall election.  

But Priebus, the former head of the Wisconsin Republican Party, quickly turned his sights to the November 2012 presidential election, telling the conservative TV talk show host that President Barack Obama is not a mainstream Democrat.

The example cited: Taxes.

"And you know, what does Barack Obama want to do?" Priebus asked. "Raise the poorest -- the lowest tax rate -- from 10 to 15 percent."

There’s been a fierce debate in recent months about whether the wealthiest Americans should pay more in income taxes. But does Obama really want to raise the lowest income rate by half to 15 percent?

Bush-era tax cuts

When we asked Republican National Committee spokesman Ryan Mahoney for evidence to back Priebus’ claim, he said the lowest rate would rise to 15 percent if the so-called Bush-era tax cuts are allowed to expire.

So, let’s first get an understanding of those.

As we noted in rating Mostly False a U.S. Chamber of Commerce claim against U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the tax cuts -- on income, capital gains, dividends and business -- were enacted in 2001 and 2003 under GOP President George W. Bush. Their major provisions were to expire at the end of 2010.

In December 2010, Congress voted to extend the tax cuts through 2012 and Obama signed the measure into law.

But where does Obama stand now on extending the cuts and maintaining the lowest income tax rate at 10 percent?

Priebus’ evidence

Mahoney provided six pieces of information that he said show what Obama "has considered doing" in relation to the tax cuts.

1. A February 2010 Bloomberg news article quoted Obama as saying he is "agnostic" about raising taxes on households that earn less than $250,000 (and individuals who earn less than $200,000).

At most, that’s an indication Obama -- more than two years ago -- was open to raising taxes on non-wealthy Americans. The article doesn’t address raising the lowest tax rate to 15 percent.

2. A February 2012 book, The Escape Artists by Noam Scheiber, says Obama was "intrigued" -- in 2009 -- by the idea of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

Being "intrigued" by an idea three years ago doesn’t show Obama now wants to allow the tax cuts to expire in a way that would raise the lowest tax rate.

3. In July 2011, The Washington Post reported that a White House official "argued" Obama could block extension of the Bush tax cuts, either as a final act in office or after winning a second term.

But a staff member’s strategizing or speculation nearly a year ago doesn’t equate to what the president wants to do now in terms of the lowest tax rate.

4. The same day, Post blogger Ezra Klein pointed out the Democrats wouldn’t have to take any action in order for the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012.

That’s not evidence of Obama’s intent, however. Moreover, the opinion article also says that about four-fifths of the Bush tax cuts go to households making less than $250,000 a year," and that the Obama administration doesn’t "want to raise taxes on those folks."

5. Then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden said in a National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare survey in 2007 he would "roll back tax cuts on dividends and capital gains."

Not only is that not a statement about Obama’s desires, it’s not even a statement about income tax rates.

6. New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza wrote in June 2012 about federal tax and budget discussions between Republicans and Democrats, saying:

"Several White House officials I talked to made it clear that if a deal, or at least the framework for a deal, is not reached before December 31st Obama would allow all the Bush tax cuts to expire -- a tactic that would achieve huge deficit reduction, but in a particularly painful and ill-conceived fashion. The administration is preparing for that outcome, and Republicans may not be willing to budge without the threat of this cataclysm."

Lizza wrote that Obama senior adviser David Plouffe said, "I think we’re going to have the ability to tell the American people, ‘Hey, your taxes may go up on January 1st because these guys refuse to ask the wealthy to do anything. Hey, there are going to be cuts in spending that aren’t done as smartly as they could because these guys won’t agree to ask anything from the wealthy.’ "

This suggests that if a fiscal compromise with the GOP can’t be reached, Obama might allow the tax cuts to expire, which would raise the lowest rate to 15 percent. But that’s not evidence that Obama, as Priebus claimed, wants to raise the rate.

Other evidence

We asked for a response from Gillian Morris, spokeswoman for Obama’s campaign in Wisconsin. She noted that in his 2013 budget message, issued in February 2012, Obama opposed extending the Bush tax for families earning over $250,000 per year. But he supports extending the rest of the tax cuts, Morris said.

We also interviewed tax experts at two national think tanks: Alan Viard, resident scholar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute; and Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. They agreed that if the Bush tax cuts expire, the lowest income tax rate would rise to 15 percent from 10 percent.

But they also agreed that Obama has consistently backed extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone but families earning $250,000 and individuals earning $200,000. Under Obama’s proposal, Williams said, the two highest tax rates would rise to 36 percent from 33 percent and to 39.6 percent from 35 percent. But the lowest rate would remain at 10 percent.

Our rating

Priebus said Obama wants to raise "the lowest (income) tax rate from 10 to 15 percent."

He provided no evidence that that is the president’s position. And experts agree Obama does not support raising the lowest rate.

We rate Priebus’ statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Fox News, Greta Van Susteren interview of Reince Priebus, June 5, 2012

Email interview, Republican National Committee spokesman Ryan Mahoney, June 7 and 12, 2012

Email interview, Barack Obama Wisconsin campaign spokeswoman Gillian Morris, June 11 and 12, 2012

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "U.S. Chamber says Rep. Tammy Baldwin backed raising taxes $858 billion by voting against extension of Bush-era tax cuts," Feb. 15, 2012

New York Times, "Bush-era tax cuts," June 6, 2012

The Washington Post, "Did Obama capitulate -- or is this a cagey move," July 31, 2011

The Washington Post, "Democrats will lose now but they can win later," July 31, 2011

Bloomberg, "Obama ‘agnostic’ on deficit cuts, won’t prejudge tax increases," Feb. 11, 2010

The Escape Artists book, February 2012

National Committee To Preserve Social Security And Medicare,  Joe Biden survey, Dec. 6, 2007

Interview,, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Alan Viard, June 12, 2012

Interview, Tax Policy Center senior fellow Roberton Williams, June 12, 2012

The White House, President Barack Obama 2013 budget message, Feb. 13, 2012

New Yorker, "The second term," June 18, 2012

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GOP leader Reince Priebus says Obama wants to raise lowest income tax rate by half

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