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Biggest Public Gripe on Taxes: Rich Don't Pay Fair Share

David Callahan

If you have listened to conservatives talking about taxes -- oh, for the past 30 years -- you might think the number one complaint Americans have about taxes is that they pay too much.

Wrong. In fact, past polls have often shown that Americans are more irked by the sense that the tax system is unfair.

This finding was reaffirmed in another poll last month:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 7-11 among 1,521 adults, finds that this sense of unfairness centers on the perception that wealthy Americans are not paying their fair share of taxes; 57% say this is what bothers them most about the tax system, while half as many (28%) point to the complexity of the system, and just 11% say that the high amount they have to pay is what bothers them the most.

These findings -- along with other polls which show strong public backing for tax hikes on the rich -- lend support to Obama's strategy of pushing for higher taxes on affluent earners. But they also suggest even higher dividends if such tax hikes were coupled with an effort to simplify the tax code -- addressing two top public gripes with a single reform push.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tax reform is a winning issue for Obama and the Democrats. The president needs to pick new fights with corporate interests and the wealthy, and going after tax loopholes is a great way to do that. Everyone -- even many Republicans -- agree that the tax code is a mess. Tax reform, done right, can capitalize on that view to advance an agenda of both simplification and fairness -- two principles that are hard to argue with.

One other point about the polling on taxes: Which is that a higher percentage of Americans believe their tax burden is "about right" now than at most points over the past 64 years, according to polling data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute. Forty-five percent said their taxes were about right in 2010 and 48 percent said that in 2009. Since Gallup started asking this question in 1947, the public has only been this satisfied with their tax burden in six of the past 64 years. Conversely, the percentage saying their taxes were "too high" was lower in 2009 and 2010 than in all but seven years since 1947. More Americans thought their taxes were too high under George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan than under Barack Obama.

These numbers raise a big question: How could one of the biggest anti-tax social movements in history -- the Tea Party -- gain such traction during a period when distress at taxes was near an all-time low?