President Barack Obama's relentless advocacy of the Buffett Rule—legislation to compel Americans earning $1 million or more annually to pay 30% of it in income taxes—moved last Saturday from misleading to incoherent. The occasion was Mr. Obama's weekly radio address, when he explained the tax was "about growth . . . about being able to make the investments we need to strengthen our economy and create jobs."
This was at least the president's third rationale for the new tax. Last September, Mr. Obama told a California fundraiser that the Buffett Rule was needed to "stabilize our debt and deficits for the next decade."
That argument would fizzle: The tax revenues to be raised over a decade—$46.7 billion, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation—would cover one-half of 1% of Mr. Obama's proposed budget over the same time period.
In January, Mr. Obama made another argument in his State of the Union address. The Buffett Rule, he said, was essential "to change our tax code so that people like me . . . pay our fair share of taxes." But as many pointed out, why is it fair to increase the burden on the roughly 236,000 individual taxpayers—less than two-tenths of 1% of the 145 million filers in 2011—who already paid 21% of all income taxes?
In Saturday's weekly address, Mr. Obama claimed the Buffett Rule would "strengthen our economy and create jobs." But does anyone imagine spending $47 billion more over the next 10 years would do so?
After his failed stimulus, even Mr. Obama recognizes few voters believe government can spend America into prosperity. So in that address the president resorted to a rhetorical trick, renaming government spending as "investments." He believes America will be better off if savings and investment are taxed more heavily so government has more to spend. He just won't say it that baldly.
Mr. Obama said last fall that the Buffett Rule "is not politics" but "math," a denial that usually indicates something is all about politics. That's the case here.
To be sure, there's evidence that people want to tax the rich more heavily. An April 12 Gallup poll found that Americans favor the Buffett Rule by 60% to 37%. But people—especially swing voters—are capable of holding seemingly conflicting opinions simultaneously.
For example, the same Gallup poll found that Americans are much more likely to think income taxes are too high (46%) than too low (3%). More important, they believe there should be a limit on what government takes from anyone, regardless of income. For example, the Tax Foundation found in 2009 that two out of every three Americans believe that 20% or less is "the maximum percentage of a person's income that should go to . . . all taxes, state, federal and local."
On Monday, Senate Republicans blocked an attempt to bring up the Buffett Rule. Democrats have vowed to raise the issue again during the campaign. But the Republicans can win this argument. They can say its effect on the deficit will be minuscule; that now is not the time to be raising taxes, especially on job creators; and that there should be a limit on what government can take from anyone.
Mr. Obama is not just showing he's a tax-and-spend liberal who will increase taxes to fund an ever larger welfare state. He is also abandoning a long-existing bipartisan consensus that encouraging savings and investment adds to prosperity. It was, after all, President John F. Kennedy who in 1963 said he cut capital gains taxes to affect "thereby the strength and potential growth of the economy."
With the country's serious economic challenges, all the president can offer is the Buffett Rule? Mr. Obama is shriveling before our eyes—not physically, but in stature and leadership. No wonder the average of all polls since Rick Santorum suspended his campaign April 11 shows Mr. Obama leading Mitt Romney by only 46.4% to 45.6%.
We may be at a political tipping point where acts confirm impressions that become impossible to shake. Mr. Obama is in danger of being seen as weak, inept and not up to the job. If Mr. Romney calls the president out on his small-minded political games and pivots to an ambitious reform agenda, he will make it much more likely that, come next January, Mr. Obama can turn his attention to writing his third autobiography.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, April 18, 2012.