ALL THROUGH the spring and summer, opinion polls tracked a growing confidence that Barack Obama could handle the economy better than John McCain. Just before the Democratic convention in August, Gallup had Obama leading McCain on the economy, 54-38 -- a 16-point margin. But now Obama's lead has nearly vanished. Gallup's latest numbers show the candidates nearly tied. Just 48 percent say Obama would be more adept at superintending the economy; 45 percent choose McCain.
Looks like voters have started paying attention to Obama's economics.
On Sept. 8, Fox News broadcast an interview between Obama and Bill O'Reilly that focused on taxation and the economy. Obama repeated his pledge to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, while raising taxes on the tiny fraction who earn more than $250,000.
"That's class warfare," O'Reilly objected. "You're taking the wealthy in America, the big earners . . . you're taking money away from them and you're giving it to people who don't. That's called income redistribution. It's a socialist tenet. Come on, you know that."
"Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill," Obama replied. "Teddy Roosevelt supported a progressive income tax." He acknowledged that he doesn't enjoy paying taxes either -- "you think I like writing the check?" -- but that "there are certain things we've got to do." His tax proposal, he explained, was a matter of . . . civility:
"If I am sitting pretty and you've got a waitress who is making minimum wage plus tips, and I can afford it and she can't, what's the big deal for me to say, I'm going to pay a little bit more? That's neighborliness." If that is Obama's rationale for making the tax code even more steeply progressive than it already is, it's no wonder voters are having second thoughts about his economic aptitude.
"Neighborliness." Perhaps that word has a nonstandard meaning to someone whose home adjoined the property of convicted swindler Tony Rezko, but extracting money by force from someone who earned it in order to give it to someone who didn't is not usually spoken of as neighborly. If Citizen Obama, "sitting pretty," reaches into his own pocket and helps out the waitress with a large tip, he has shown a neighborly spirit. But there is nothing neighborly about using the tax code to compel someone else to pay the waitress that tip.
Taxation is not generosity, it is confiscation at gunpoint. Does Obama not understand the difference?
Perhaps he doesn't. Eager though he may be to compel "neighborliness" in others, he has not been nearly so avid about demonstrating it himself. Barack and Michelle Obama's tax returns show that from 2000 through 2004, when their adjusted gross income averaged nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year, their annual charitable donations amounted to just $2,154 -- less than nine-tenths of 1 percent. Not until he entered the US Senate in 2005 and began to be spoken of as a presidential possibility did the Obamas' "neighborliness" become more evident. (In 2005-2007, they gave 5.5 percent of their income to charity.)
George McGovern's proposed $1,000 "demogrant" was widely scoffed at in 1972.
Why not? Because you don't have to be rich to be skeptical when a candidate argues that the top 1 percent of taxpayers, who already pay 40 percent of federal income taxes, aren't being taxed enough. Nor do you have to be an economist to wonder about the grasp of a nominee who tells 95 percent of the public that they can have something for nothing. Obamanomics may look pretty at first glance. But voters are focusing more closely now, and they can see beyond the lipstick.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)