For a politician who sometimes got accused of playing class warfare, candidate Barack Obama sure made a lot of well-to-do friends during the 2008 campaign.
The big question now is whether President Barack Obama can keep them.
One striking, if little-noted, trend of the past presidential election was that Obama won the affluent vote — those making more than $200,000 annually — with 52 percent. Moving down the income scale a bit, he and John McCain essentially tied among those making between $100,000 and $200,000.
In 2008, exit polls showed the percentage of voters earning more than $100,000 had jumped to a historic high of 26 percent, compared with just 9 percent in 1996. Obama’s strong showing among this bloc reversed a decades-old pattern in which the more money someone made, the more likely he or she was to vote Republican.
But these voters are not being repaid for their support — more like the other way around.
Beyond the obviously wealthy voters, people who in many places are no more than upper middle class find themselves targeted to pay for a wide range of Obama policies aimed at leveling the economic playing field.
“The notion that people who are in those income brackets are Republican isn’t true anymore,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“In part,” he added, “that’s because of the way they made their money” — in high-tech, legal or service professions that skew liberal, rather than through traditional Main Street businesses that skew conservative.
Obama’s gamble that he can ask affluent progressives to pay more without complaint has been made riskier by the collapse of home prices and stock portfolios.
Many well-to-do voters who may have been in a magnanimous frame of mind when they cast their ballots last November are not nearly so rich now.
“If Obama comes down more heavily on them, how will they react? Will their support fade? We don’t know the answers,” said Mark Penn, a Democratic strategist who conducted polling for the Clinton White House and advised Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign.
Obama’s mild rhetoric about asking, “in some cases, those who are more fortunate ... to pay a little bit more” hardly constitutes class warfare to most middle-earning Americans. What’s more, he has delayed by a year his proposal to raise top rates back to their Clinton-era levels.
But within Obama’s policies there is a notable degree of class-consciousness — and a consistent strategy to target the costs and limit the benefits of Obama’s program for upper earners.
Obama even pressed to limit the deductibility of charitable contributions and mortgage interest for the affluent — but was thwarted by a stunned Congress.
These are the same people who typically don’t qualify for the administration’s programs to curb foreclosures or ease mortgage burdens because of home value limits imposed by the White House that are intended to keep wealthy investors and homeowners out.
Another example of the administration’s determination to give a progressive tilt to new policies is its auto bailout program, in which Obama wants to allow consumers who buy cars this year to write off federal and state sales taxes on their 2009 returns.
But individuals who earn more than $125,000 and couples with household incomes of $250,000 or more would still be required to feed the federal treasury — a policy that essentially avoids asking middle-class taxpayers to pay for a break for the better-off.
Likewise, when Obama threw his support behind a proposal to permit bankruptcy judges to adjust mortgage agreements, administration officials sought to keep it focused largely on low- and middle-income beneficiaries.
Obama officials say they are mainly trying to restore balance to government policies that under President George W. Bush favored the rich.
And, no matter the rationale, people with six-figure salaries would hardly seem the most sympathetic parties in an economy in which millions of people are facing joblessness or shrinking blue-collar wages.
But the politics of the question are more complicated than they once were. In big urban areas on both coasts, million-dollar houses are commonplace in average neighborhoods. And even people making $250,000 — the level at which Obama’s income tax hikes would kick in for couples — typically are at the higher end of the professional class and, if they qualify at all, at the lower end of the wealthy class.
“A person making $250,000 isn’t wealthy,” said Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “They still have to work for a living.”
These people may be fickle.
When asked in January if they approved of the way Obama was handling his transition, 74 percent of the respondents earning more than $100,000 approved, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
When asked in March — shortly after Obama’s budget plan was released — if they approved of the job he was doing as president, only 48 percent of them said yes, according to the NBC/WSJ poll.
It was the only income bracket that didn’t give Obama a solid approval rating, a weakness that takes on added significance as the percentage of upper-income voters grows and shows tentative signs of becoming less Republican.
“Are they important? They are members of the chattering class. They were important donors. And they were probably the single-biggest growth area that he brought to the Democratic Party,” said Penn.
Most of them cast their votes with their eyes wide open. According to exit polls, roughly 49 percent expected their taxes to increase.
Obama has tried to narrow the political fallout by noting that he is targeting people who have plenty and can pay more.
“It’s not going to cripple them. They’ll still be well-to-do. And, you know, ultimately, if we’re going to tackle the serious problems that we’ve got, in some cases, those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more,” he said last month.
For added impact, he often points out that he is among those who will have to pay more.
But a close inspection of the targeted class suggests that Obama isn’t really that much like the rest of them.
The first couple’s joint tax return reported earnings of $2.7 million in 2008. The vast majority of the people making more than $200,000 are crowded around the lower end of the scale.
According to 2006 Internal Revenue Service figures, the most recent available, there were 4 million tax returns for earners of more than $200,000. Of them, 3.1 million reported earnings between $200,000 and $500,000.
The number of filers making $1 million or more was just 353,000 out of 92.7 million tax returns in 2006.
And that was one of the boom years.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 54 have lost 45 percent of their median net worth in the past year and a half.
It’s those families and voters clustered at the bottom of Obama’s target range that present the most difficult political challenge for the president.
Many of them never really felt rich in the first place, even before 401(k) plans shrank and housing values tanked.
White House officials say the president is doing plenty for the nation’s elite, simply by fixing the economy.
When the banks failed, for instance, the rich were disproportionately hit. As they have begun to stabilize, the wealthy disproportionately began to benefit. As the stock market inches up, so will the value of portfolios held by the affluent.
And when middle-class families go shopping with the added income from their payroll tax deductions, they will buy from stores and companies generally owned by richer people, an aide noted.
As for the tax hikes, Obama is quick to point out that the increases he is proposing represent a return to rates seen during the Reagan and Clinton years, when the well-off were doing pretty well.
In addition, the hikes won’t take effect until 2010 — a time when the White House predicts the economy will be in recovery. That delay also could help mitigate political fallout for Obama and his majorities in Congress, which will be facing midterm elections.
Republicans already are gearing up to use the tax hikes against congressional Democrats and win back their core wealthy backers. Summing up Obama’s first 100 days on Thursday, House Minority Leader John Boehner said: “Spending, taxing, borrowing and ducking the hard choices.”
Republicans also are prepared to pounce at any sign that the White House is encroaching on the Obama-set no-tax-increase zone: below $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for households.
The 2008 election “was not a typical election. There was a game-changing event in the campaign — the Wall Street meltdown — that affected everybody differently,” said Brown.
“Whether or not it was [a] realigning election [for upper earners], we don’t know yet,” he added.