Published on
the Chicago Tribune

Anti-Obama Rebellion Poses Risk for the GOP

Michael Oneal and Janet Hook

Oklahoma City Astroturf Tea Party - April 15, 2009 (flickr photo by davidhglover)

WASHINGTON - Across the country, Republicans and their conservative allies sought to ignite a grass-roots rebellion against President Barack Obama on Wednesday, staging scores of Tax Day "tea parties" to demand tax cuts, lower federal spending and smaller government.

But the effort came with a risk: In the current economic crisis, with half a million or more jobs vanishing each month, many Americans seem less concerned about how much Washington deducts from their paychecks than whether they will have a paycheck at all.

"Nothing is as pressing a concern as the economy," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, noting that even among Republicans the political salience of the tax issue is not what it once was.

At issue is whether the anti-tax, anti-government spending message makes Republicans seem out of touch with present-day reality.

Polls have found that Americans are more comfortable with what they pay in taxes than at any time in the last quarter-century. And Obama's high approval ratings on the economy suggest that most people accept his argument that a major increase in spending is necessary to blunt the crisis.

Obama also has sought to inoculate himself by building modest tax cuts for most Americans into the stimulus bill, while talking continually about how today's higher spending must later give way to frugality and hawkishness on the deficit.

"A lot of the discussion has been focused on government spending, but the voters are still focused on one number: the unemployment number," said David Winston, another prominent Republican pollster. "Any time you are not talking about jobs, you are talking about topic No. 2 for Americans. Republicans need to translate the tax and spending issue into jobs."

At least since the days of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have thrived on the anti-spend, anti-tax message-despite the fact GOP presidents have presided over major expansions of the deficit.

Today, however, the economic climate is far different, as evidenced by the election, in which voters picked a do-more, spend-more presidential candidate over a do-less, cut-taxes candidate.

The one element in the conservatives' message that pollsters say could resonate down the road is government spending. While most voters seem to support the idea of a surge in outlays now, there is concern about deficits stretching into the future.

"One thing you don't want as a sitting president is a populist movement that disagrees with you," Winston said. Whatever success the protests had Wednesday, he said, "The question is, what does this look like two to three months from now?"

In recent years, the April 15 deadline for filing federal income taxes has become a chance for political theater. And Obama did not pass up the opportunity. He was flanked by people he said had taken advantage of his package of payroll tax cuts and home-buying subsidies. Around the country, thousands of tea party participants took to the streets.

Amid claims that the Republicans had orchestrated the tea parties, Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, insisted they represented a grass-roots uprising. The Republican Party, he said on MSNBC, was "too disorganized and unsure of itself to pull this off."

Still, Republicans did their best to leverage the tea-party fervor for political advantage, offering visitors to the Republican National Committee Web site the chance to send tea-bag postcards to officials, including Obama.

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