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Why President Obama's tax attack on Mitt Romney will backfire
The Obama campaign is blasting the Republican's tax-reform proposal, even though the president's own advisors have long backed the very same policy
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey
O

bviously, the Obama campaign believes it has hit on a winning attack in the campaign to defeat Mitt Romney and win a second term, even if the Obama team can't quite define the assault properly. For the last two weeks, Team Obama has hit Romney over "outsourcing," when they really mean off-shoring — the process of sending jobs overseas to reduce costs. Then there's the fight over when Romney's tenure at Bain Capital ended, something that just became an issue in and of itself in the last few days. This supposedly matters because of the date when Bain started investing in companies that off-shored significant numbers of jobs. Those decisions appear to have taken place after Romney ended his management of Bain investments, but the president's advisers need to tie him to those decisions in order to make Romney less palatable to the working-class Rust Belt voters that polls show are abandoning the president.

But set aside the semantics. The big question on Bain is whether anyone really cares about private-sector investment decisions from 1999 to 2002. So far, despite weeks of attacks on Romney in ads and in media appearances, there is no evidence that voters will pay attention. While Obama hammers Romney with negative ads, the polling in the presidential race has been remarkably stable. The Real Clear Politics average of major national pollsters shows that the margin between Obama and Romney has not grown larger than three points since the beginning of May — and that Obama has yet to rise above a 47.5 percent support level.  

While Obama hammers Romney with negative ads, the polling in the presidential race has been remarkably stable.

A new poll on the subject of ethics and business gives even less reason to believe that this strategy will pay dividends. Rasmussen surveyed 1,000 likely voters last Friday and Saturday on whether Mitt Romney's business record gives voters a reason to vote for or against him. While 74 percent of respondents had followed the debate over Romney's business dealings somewhat or very closely, the result was a split at 41 percent for voting for or against. Independents narrowly tilted toward support, 40-37, but that is still in the margin of error. Middle-age and senior voters broke more strongly positive, however, 48-39 and 57-31, respectively — which may mean that Team Obama is reinforcing a strong Romney point among the voters most likely to turn out in this election.

On the question of ethics, the news turns even worse for Obama. Slightly more voters see Romney as more ethical than the norm among politicians (27 percent) than there are voters who see him as worse than the norm (25 percent), with 40 percent seeing no real difference. The numbers for Obama go the other direction. Thirty-six percent believe Obama to have worse ethics than the norm, while 32 percent believe Obama to be an improvement, while only 28 percent see him as the norm. That's a damning indictment for the man who won in 2008 on the platform of hope and change.

Under these conditions, the Obama campaign should be looking for a better line of attack on off-shoring — and they launched it late last week. Instead of hearkening back to 1999, Team Obama highlighted a Romney tax-reform proposal that would apply the kind of territorial approach used by most other Western nations. This allows corporations to return foreign profit back to the U.S. without a tax penalty, which Obama and the campaign plan to argue will further benefit companies that off-shore jobs, and that Romney will create jobs in China before the U.S.

This attack at least has the virtue of substance. It addresses a real policy issue in the present rather than private investments in the past. Unfortunately for Obama, it will also end up stepping all over his own claims to economic expertise.

During his tenure as president, Obama took a lot of criticism for his lack of private-sector business experience. To counter those attacks, he created two economic panels — the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (known as Simpson-Bowles). The president appointed business executives to the CJC specifically to demonstrate that his policies were based on the expertise of the private sector. 

What do they have to say about Romney's tax proposal? ABC's Jake Tapper reported that both of these two presidential advisory boards recommended exactly what Romney proposed. So did a third economic panel, the Export Council. Boeing CEO Jim McInerny wrote for the private-sector members of the Export Council in December 2010, urging Obama to adopt a "competitive territorial tax system for the United States" that ""should broadly follow the practice of our trading partners and should not be designed to raise new revenue." In the same month, the Simpson-Bowles commission wrote that the current U.S. tax system put American businesses at a disadvantage abroad, thanks to the foreign-tax issue.

And what about President Obama's own Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, formed to enhance common perception about Obama's economic policies? The panel not only supports the territorial tax plan proposed by Romney, it made the same argument at the end of last year that the lack of such reform kept badly-needed capital overseas — capital that could fuel job creation in the U.S., and protect American firms from foreign takeovers:

"[The territorial-tax reform] would eliminate the so-called lock-out effect in the current worldwide system of taxation that discourages repatriation and investment of the foreign earnings of U.S. companies in the United States. The current worldwide system makes investing these earnings in the United States more expensive from a tax point of view than reinvesting them abroad where they are not subject to additional corporate tax. These members believe that a territorial system would enhance the ability of U.S. companies to acquire foreign companies and would eliminate tax incentives of U.S. multinationals to merge with or sell their foreign operations to foreign companies. This would also reduce the vulnerability of domestic firms to takeover bids by foreign firms operating with lower tax rates. According to this view, a lower corporate tax rate and the adoption of a territorial system would increase the competitiveness of U.S. companies relative to their foreign counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, adding to the U.S. jobs that are needed to grow and support global growth."

Instead of making the case that Romney will increase off-shoring, Obama's refusal to adopt the territorial tax system that Obama's own advisers have repeatedly proposed makes the case that Obama can't grasp the problem at all. Furthermore, if Obama attacks Romney as an "outsourcer" and extremist in economics on this basis, the existence of these proposals within his own administration will deepen the impression that Obama's ethics make him just another politician willing to say anything to get re-elected, and incompetent on economics to boot. For a candidate whose main campaign promise was to change that very impulse in Washington, and whose economy has gone into serious retreat, that will all but eliminate any argument Obama has for a second term.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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