Folks Like Me

When President Obama calls for raising taxes on the top 2 percent, he has a habit of declaring that, “Folks like me” should pay higher taxes. He used the phrase dozens of time during the campaign, and just this week again in an interview on Bloomberg.

Either someone on the president’s speechwriting staff has a tin ear, or Obama himself does.

For starters, the comment puts unnecessary distance between the president and the citizenry. It signals: I am not like most of you. I am far wealthier.

But the phrase, “folks like me,” is wildly misleading. The people whose taxes really need to rise are not folks from the professional class like Barack Obama. They are folks like Mitt Romney and Pete Peterson—people with net worth in the billions or hundreds of millions; people behind the corporate Fix the Debt campaign; people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson.

These are people not at all like us, and they are not people like Barack Obama.

As Obama used to remind audiences, he is a lot more like the rest of us than he is like the mega-rich. He and Michelle, not so long ago, were still paying down college loans and juggling monthly bills.

He became affluent only because he wrote a best selling book, Dreams From My Father, that sold modestly when it was first published and then took off after Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. His three-book deal with Random House in 2005 brought him an advance of $1.9 million, the first time he saw serious money. That was less than a decade ago.

In 2007, when he announced his candidacy for president, Michelle Obama was the major earner in the family, with a salary of $317,000 as vice president for community affairs of the University of Chicago hospitals. As a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama earned $165,200. A half a million dollars is a very sweet family income, but it’s not in the Mitt Romney league.

Obama, after all, was raised by a single mother and her parents. Can you imagine him saying, as Mitt Romney did, that young people having trouble getting started economically should borrow money from their parents? His mother and grandparents were just getting by.

Today, Obama is part of the affluent professional class. His salary as president of the United States is $400,000. That puts him in the top two percent. With his book royalties and earnings on savings, he is probably just inside the top one percent. His net worth is in the single-digit millions. It was $1.3 million when he declared for president in 2007, and has risen to an estimated $5.7 million according to Forbes, mostly on the strength of his best-selling books.

So, yes, Obama can afford to pay higher taxes, like the rest of the affluent professional class. But the people who really need tax increases are the billionaires in the top one-hundredth of one percent, who have been pulling away from the rest of America.

Folks like them.

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