Obama's 'tea party' complex

President Obama tweaked tea party tax day protesters for failing to see their tax burden has fallen under his presidency. Okay, he's got a point. But why kick a political hornet's nest?

Dean J. Koepfler/News Tribune/AP
Wearing a tea bag hat and hefting an anti-taxation sign, Judith Levy and her husband Warren joined in protest during an anti-tax rally on the Capitol steps in Olympia, Wash. April 15.

First there were the "bitter-clingers," then Scott Brown's truck. Now President Obama has taken on tea party protesters, saying he's "amused" by their failure to see that the average American's tax burden has lessened under his stewardship.

"You would think they'd be saying thank you, that's what you'd think" the President said.

The comment – which brought him rousing applause at a fundraising speech in Miami Thursday night – is, on its face, accurate. A New York Times/CBS News poll says only two percent of tea party protesters realize that their taxes have likely gone down this year (compared to 22 percent of the general population who understand that). Given college tax credits, making work pay, college loan relief, and home buyer credits, 90 percent of Americans got a tax break this year. The average tax refund is 10 percent larger than last year.

"The rise of the Tea Party at time when taxes are literally at their lowest in decades is really hard to understand," William Gale of the Brookings Institution told Political Hotsheet.

For Democrats, many of whom believe tea party protests embody a racist undercurrent aimed at the country's first black president, Obama's tactic isn't meant to divide, but simply add much-needed perspective to a polarized and often hyperbolic national debate that President Bill Clinton last week worried could have "real consequences."

But to distill the tea party message down to simply an argument over this year's 1040 form, critics say, isn't only a failure to understand the tea party's DNA, but also factually questionable given recent analyses showing that the tax burden on Americans is likely to rise in coming years.

What's more, tea party protesters aren't just worried about taxes, but the rising federal debt and creeping entitlement programs they say threaten individual liberty as defined by the Constitution.

"Obama mocks tea party protests … while feverishly working fast and furious to do everything they are forthrightly protesting, which is a government driving the nation into greater deficit spending and unsustainable taxation. That is funny, Mr. President," writes Tara Lynn Thompson at Right Pundits.

So why did Obama do it?

To be sure, sometimes presidents can be politically tone-deaf. While he never openly addressed derision against him from anti-war protesters and voices from the left, President Bush's "political capital" remark after his 2004 reelection struck the wrong tone with many Americans.

Moreover, as with the "bitter-clinger" quote, the tea party reference was made at a fund-raiser, where heavy-hitting donors expect some political red meat from the main speaker.

The President could also simply be feeling comfortable that Democrats, with a major legislative victory now under their belt, have a lock on the electorate and that more conservative voices can be largely dismissed at this point. On Saturday, Obama also said that Republicans "won't be very successful" if they run on a '"repeal healthcare" platform.

Whatever was behind Obama's quip, one thing's for sure. Tea party supporters, who, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, now make up 24 percent of American voters, aren't laughing.

"He's amused. That is just unbelievable. You know, at first, tea partyers, they were angry, they were, you know, kind of fringe, they've become main street – mainstream and main street – for smaller taxes," Fox News analyst Eric Bolling said on Friday. "He'd better take them a little bit more seriously than being mildly amused by the tea parties."

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