PRINCETON, NJ -- President Obama's call Wednesday for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans highlights a partisan and class gulf in Americans' views on taxing the rich. Substantial majorities of Democrats and of those with low incomes endorse the idea of redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich. Two-thirds or more of Republicans and of those with higher incomes disagree.
In his major budget address Wednesday at George Washington University, Obama repeatedly called for higher taxes on the richest Americans:
In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again. … My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.
Republican leaders immediately criticized this theme. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example, said, "Any plan that starts with job-destroying tax hikes is a nonstarter."
This political wrangling between Obama and Republican leaders about taxes on the rich reflects the division in sentiment between rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans nationwide. More than 7 in 10 Democrats agree that the government should "redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich." Fewer than 3 in 10 Republicans (28%) -- and 43% of independents -- agree.
Americans' views also differ substantially, depending on their personal income bracket. More than 6 in 10 Americans making under $30,000 a year say wealth should be redistributed through heavy taxes on the rich. Thirty-one percent of those making $75,000 a year and more agree -- even though many in this broad group would not be affected by the new taxes proposed by the president, most of which are targeted at those making $250,000 a year and more.
This question on redistributing wealth was first asked in a 1939 poll commissioned by Fortune Magazine, at the tail end of the Depression. At that time, 35% of Americans agreed with the redistributionist alternative. Gallup has asked the question six times since then, including five times between 2007 and the current April 7-11 survey. Responses have varied, but the general pattern has consistently shown a split in responses. Most recently, among all Americans, 47% agree that the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes, while 49% disagree.
Majority Say Money and Wealth Should Be More Evenly Distributed
A majority of Americans, in response to a separate Gallup question, continue to reject the idea that the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. is fair. They instead agree with the broad sentiment that "money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people."
The trend on this question stretches back to 1984. A majority of Americans have always agreed with the "more evenly distributed" alternative, although the percentage is down slightly in recent years. The recession appears to have affected responses to the question. Sixty-eight percent of Americans agreed that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed in April 2008, the highest across the 11 times this question has been asked. By October 2008, however, in the midst of the financial meltdown and escalating recession, agreement dropped to 58%, similar to where it is today.
Republicans are least likely to say money and wealth should be more evenly distributed, while Democrats are most likely. Republicans are not monolithic in their views, however, with more than a third agreeing with the redistributionist alternative; almost 8 in 10 Democrats say the same.
President Obama clearly was preaching to his political base Wednesday. Democrats widely agree with his call for higher taxes on the rich, and also are highly likely to say more generally that wealth in this country should be spread out across a larger percentage of the people. Republicans nationwide disagree with these types of proposals.
Not surprisingly, this issue also divides the country based on income. The large group of Americans who make $75,000 and more oppose the concept of heavy taxes on the rich, while those making under $30,000 widely agree.
The "tax the rich" question trended back to 1939 is strongly worded, asking about "heavy" taxes on the rich -- and almost half of the American public still agrees with it. Gallup recently asked a separate question about including "higher taxes for families with household incomes of $250,000 and above" in next year's budget, and found 59% agreement. Again, Democrats were most likely, and Republicans least likely, to agree with this proposal.
All in all, Americans tend to agree with the broad principle that money and wealth should be distributed more equally in American society today. A majority agrees with the idea of higher taxes on those making $250,000 a year or more, and about half go along with the idea of "heavy taxes" on the rich in order to redistribute wealth. In this sense, President Obama's proposals tend to be in line with the views of many Americans. The fact that Republicans are so likely to disagree, however, shows that a congressional battle over the president's proposals is highly likely. Additionally, this issue most likely reflects a major theme that will echo through next year's presidential campaign.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted April 7-11, 2011, with a random sample of 1,077 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phones numbers are selected using random digit dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone-only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.