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Barack Obama as Captain Ahab

One of the things that has become apparent during the presidential campaign and now, during the negotiations over how to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” is the importance the president places on raising the rates on the top 2 percent of income earners. I’ve written before on why I believe conservatives shouldn’t make a “no new taxes” pledge and why keeping the top rate at 35 percent (which I support) isn’t a matter of high principle.

At the same time, Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans–who after all have been willing to put $800 billion in revenues (through closing loopholes and deductions) on the table–have been far more open to compromise than President Obama, who has not given an inch. In particular, the president has made it clear that he would gladly go over the fiscal cliff rather than give up on his obsession to raise tax rates on the top 2 percent.

For Obama, the top two percent are the Great White Whale–and he is Captain Ahab.

The question is why. Captain Ahab’s neurotic obsession was understandable (Moby Dick, after all, had destroyed his boat and bit off his leg). So what explains Mr. Obama’s obsession?

It can’t be what he claims, which is improving the economy or reducing the deficit. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out, “the alleged curative effect on debt of Obama’s tax-rate demand — the full rate hike on the ‘rich’ would have reduced the 2012 deficit from $1.10 trillion to $1.02 trillion. That’s a joke, a rounding error.”

So if what is driving Obama isn’t an economic argument, what else might it be? Part of it is, as Krauthammer argues, political. Mr. Obama believes forcing Republicans to agree to raise tax rates on the top bracket will fracture the party. But there may be something else at play as well. Barack Obama is a man of the left, a proud progressive, and what animates the left today isn’t a positive vision to achieve the common good; it’s a seething resentment toward those who are successful and a commitment to make them pay more in the name of “fairness.”

To understand the president’s worldview, it’s worth recalling some of the most revealing statements he’s made over the last four years. The first is his response to Charles Gibson during a 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, when Obama said he would favor raising capital-gains taxes in the name of fairness–even if doing so would create a net revenue loss. The second was Obama’s comments to Joe Wurzelbacher, also made in 2008, that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” And the third took place in 2012 when the president said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.”

Mr. Obama’s aim when it comes to taxes, then, isn’t, as he and other liberals often argue, simply to raise revenues. Rather, it is to advance their understanding of “fairness,” which they take to be synonymous with justice, both taken to mean that the top earners in America, at every given moment in time, aren’t sacrificing enough in the form of higher taxes. They should always pay more.

If there were no political or institutional checks on Obama, I’m quick sure he’d tax the top 2 percent at a much higher rate than he’s arguing for now (39.6 percent). But just like he was willing to jettison his commitment to the single-payer system (which in the past he has admitted he prefers) in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama is a patient ideologue. He is willing to take what he can get now in order to continue his transformational project for America. Part of that transformational project is going after “the rich.” It has become, for him, something of an obsession.

The president may win this particular battle. But if he does, his compulsion won’t end. For ideologues, for the Captain Ahabs of the world, it never really does.


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