Billionaire Warren Buffett may not seem to have much in common with angry laborers at town hall meetings or armies of California nurses protesting in the streets.
But these days, the executive celebrity in his boardroom and working folks on the front lines have found a common mantra as the economy continues to sputter and the 2012 election approaches: "Tax the rich."
They are joining Democratic politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who pounded the issue of making "millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share" nearly a dozen times at a recent event in Oakland.
The calls have become louder as President Obama plans to unveil his jobs plan next Thursday in a highly anticipated speech that they hope will provide a counterpoint to conservative grassroots GOP groups pressing lawmakers to slash government programs to stimulate the economy - without raising taxes.
Also driving the debate is the looming work of the bipartisan 12-member congressional "super committee" on deficit reduction set to begin its work this month in Washington.
'Stop Coddling the Rich'
At the same time, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org has launched a "Stop Coddling the Rich" campaign to underscore what it says is a growing disparity between American income classes at a time of growing economic uncertainty.
Today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and the powerful National Nurses United union will take the message one step further with one of their trademark protests - this time opening a symbolic "soup kitchen."
The nationwide protests are expected to involve about 10,000 participants in street-theater events in more than four dozen cities and other locations around the country.
Millions are suffering
"What's happened is that the unemployed and the uninsured, the underinsured and the homeless have become invisible in our culture," says Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the nurses' union, which has 170,000 members nationally and 75,000 in California, where it's also known as California Nurses Association.
DeMoro said she hears daily from her union members upset by the millions of Americans who are suffering while Wall Street financiers are making substantial amounts of money.
"In this country, the working people pay and pay and pay and the wealthy don't - and they get bonuses and bailouts," widening the gap between rich and poor, said DeMoro.
Gulf between parties
With the 2012 election approaching and Republicans at state and local levels drawing a line in the sand against new taxes, the "tax the rich" movement underscores a growing gulf between the parties.
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"The Republican Tea Party is trying to hold the country hostage," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who has held job fairs around the country the past few weeks with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. "The only way you're going to create jobs is a direct investment (from the federal government) in job creation and repealing the Bush tax cuts."
Activists such as DeMoro say that members of the congressional super committee from both political parties appear more interested in cutting social programs "to funnel more resources to Wall Street and foreign banks and investors."
Buffett, in a widely read opinion piece last month in the New York Times, kicked off the latest debate, saying, "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."
A survey released Wednesday by the Institute of Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington, appeared to confirm some of his views, finding that 25 of the highest paid CEOs earned more last year than their firms paid in income tax, and that several of those firms paid more to lobbyists than they did in taxes.
Even conservative Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), a self-made millionaire and one of the richest members of Congress, issued a statement on the survey, saying that it's time to examine "the extent to which the problems in CEO compensation that led to the economic crisis continue to exist today."
But some Democrats, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, have acknowledged the political quicksand present in such a discussion. In comments circulated on Twitter, Brown suggested that Republicans view new taxes as something akin to "a sexually transmitted disease."
Liberals such as Lee are warning Obama not to call for more tax cuts in his jobs speech next week.
"You can't keep giving tax cuts because tax cuts do nothing but drain money from our economy," Lee said, arguing that 40 percent of the $787 billion federal stimulus package in 2009 were tax cuts that "didn't do anything."
$500 billion for jobs
She wants at least $500 billion in direct federal investment in job creation and training, to be paid for by closing the Bush tax cuts. She also would like unemployment benefits extended for 14 weeks.
"If there are 14 million people unemployed, we want to see a targeted approach to everyone who is unemployed," Lee said. "This is a national emergency. I want to hear the president say that."
Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli contributed to this report.