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Talking with Jeff Blodgett and dissecting Team Obama’s language

The president’s top dog in Minnesota serves up concepts that Obama will emphasize.

Jeff Blodgett

Jeff Blodgett took over this month as top dog (the actual title is “state director”) of the Obama reelection campaign in Minnesota.

In an interview, I asked him to describe the frame in which the campaign will present the choice facing the electorate in November. He replied:

It’s all about the different visions that are out there. About how we continue to build a sound economy. One choice is with the president, to continue on a path of progress, continue to build an economy that works for everyone, especially middle-class families. And that involves investing in education, American manufacturing and energy solutions. Or do we actually go back to the policies of the last decade that got us into the mess that we are now climbing out of.?

Most people believe that having a fair — having a government and an economy where everyone plays by the same rules is important. That is the other big argument and conversation in this campaign, whether you have people playing by the same rules or some people getting unfairly rewarded. A lot of middle class people feel that that happened in the last decade with the policies of the last administration. Whether you create a public sector and an economy where everyone has the same rules, everyone is paying their fair percentage of taxes, and you don’t have some people with special treatment. His opponent  [Mitt Romney]represents a complete opposite, and lives a complete opposite of that view.

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Blodgett — the long-time Paul Wellstone campaign manager, founder of the Wellstone Action organization that trains progressives in the political arts and most recently the head of WIN Minnesota, a liberal fund-raising outfit — is a behind-the-scenes guy, no oratorical tub-thumper. I quote his long first answer to my what-will-the-election-be-about question because, if we deconstruct it a little, it reflects the language that the Obama campaign at all levels wants to use and the concepts that it will emphasize.

While Repub message central likes to lead with “freedom,” the Dems lead with “fairness.” Dems want to raise more tax revenue from the rich and spend it on things that help the middle class and the poor, but they want to talk about it in ways that are harder to characterize as “class warfare” (not that they can do anything to stop the Repubs from characterizing it that way).

In the Dem message, it’s not that they want to soak the rich but that Repubs favor special rules for the wealthy to help them get wealthier, which is why the disparity between rich and poor keeps growing. Romney is rich and lives like a rich guy. He benefits from special rules such as tax loopholes that enable him to pay a lower effective tax rate (13.9 percent in 2010, the only year for which he has released his tax returns). That is a leading example of how, according to the Dem message, Romney not only supports the unfair rules, but benefits from them.

Fairness vs. Freedom

In the Dem vocabulary, government spending is not spending but “investing.” And when you look at the areas Blodgett mentions for these investments – “education, American manufacturing and energy solutions,” they are fairly far away from the kinds of outright welfare-for-the-poor that gets the Tea Party types riled up.

The Repubs will (and do) call attention to the persistent high unemployment rate, and remind voters that Obama said in 2009 that if he can’t get the economy turned around in four years, he will be looking at a “one-term proposition.” Obama and his minions (including Blodgett in his summary) will point to the slow but steady economic recovery (25 straight months of job growth, Blodgett said, most of it in the private sector).

Then, of course, there is the subtle (well, not all that subtle) reminder that the economic collapse happened when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, after he had signed a tax cut that disproportionately helped the wealthy and pushed for deregulation of businesses, including the financial industry, that played such a big role in the collapse of 2007.

Blodgett never mentions Bush by name. It is awkward for a president, in his fourth year, to keep blaming his predecessor. But it is part of the message that Blodgett conveys (and that Obama has also conveyed) that Obama inherited a colossal economic mess (Blodgett consistently refers to it as what Obama “was handed”) and to suggest that Romney’s policies would resemble Bush’s.

“When this president took office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month,” Blodgett told me. “That’s what he was handed… He was handed a deep problem. He’s actually brought us back from the brink.”

Buffett Rule

For the moment at least, the key symbol of how Obama will increase fairness and require everyone to play by the same rules is the proposed “Buffett Rule,” which would require that anyone with more than $1 million of annual income to pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent. (Most people with incomes that high would already be in the top 35 percent marginal tax bracket, which kicks in at the $379,150 mark in taxable income.)

When I asked Blodgett for examples of how Obama would address the “unfair rules” that help the rich at the expense of everyone else, he immediately brought up the Buffett Rule as Exhibit A.

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(The estimated amount of additional revenue it would raise vary from about $50 billion a year by the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice to $47 billion over 10 years by the Joint Committee on Taxation.)

And the Buffet Rule has little chance of being adopted as long as Republicans control either house of Congress. But it is a shorthand way reminding America that the wealthy – for all their complaining about high marginal tax rates – don’t really pay at those rates. Rightys will quickly point out the wealthiest 1 percent of households pay about 35 percent of income taxes while that almost half of households pay no federal income taxes at all. (That ignores the FICA payroll tax, which hits most households.)

The $1-million-annual-income threshold for the Buffett Rule is so high it wouldn’t even hit all of the richest 1 percent. But it would hit Mitt Romney, who makes about $20 million a year, which makes it all the more awkward for him to oppose it (as he does) since the Buffett Rule would actually cost his family a sizeable sum. Blodgett also noted that Romney has supported the House Republican budget proposal known as the Ryan plan (for its author, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin), which would change the tax system in ways that, he said, would also favor the wealthy.

Romney Rule

In the last few days, since the Repub nomination race reached its de facto end, Team Obama has greatly increased the frequency of its attacks on Romney, all revolving around the we’re-for-the-middle-class, he’s-for-the-millionaires theme. A lot of it revolves around the Buffett Rule, but it escalates from there. As Vice President Joe Biden launched his first overt campaign trip of the season Thursday, he released text of remarks he planned to use which contrasted the Buffett Rule with a new vague principle that Biden’s text calls the “Romney Rule.” It goes like this:

The Buffett Rule says that multimillionaires should pay at least the same percentage of their income in taxes as middle-class families do. The Romney Rule says the very wealthy should keep the tax cuts and loopholes they have, and get an additional new tax cut every year that is worth more than what the average middle-class family makes in an entire year.