The Magazine

Life of Henry

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Time and again, Obama officials said the economy was improving. Each time, the improvement turned out to be transitory or illusory. The president’s one constant ambition, it seemed, was to increase taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year​—​yet in his speeches, the president emphasized that “millionaires and billionaires” could “afford to pay a little bit more.”

Henry is not a millionaire. He makes less than $250,000. But his goal is to have a successful business, and make as much money as he can to pay for his mortgage, utilities, gas bill, credit cards, loans for business and education, maintenance for the house, furnishings for the house, groceries, property and life insurance, and, if the situation is good, vacation and travel.

What’s the incentive to cross that $250,000 threshold if Obama is just going to tax more of his earnings? Why do the Democrats lump Henry’s ambition to make an extra $1,000 or more with that of millionaires and billionaires who have already made fortunes? Henry could see raising taxes on billionaires. He’s never met one. But he has plenty of friends who make a little more than $250,000 and are still by no means “rich.” What’s Obama got against them?

Moreover, if Congress does nothing, it won’t be only Charles Koch and Sheldon Adelson and Warren Buffett who see their income tax go up at the end of the year. Under current law, income taxes at every level, along with payroll taxes for which Henry is responsible, are scheduled to increase on January 1. Henry will be hit as an individual and as an employer. Many liberals, he suspects, would not really mind if taxes on all income groups increased.

Henry does not follow politics closely, but every time he sees the president on television, Obama is throwing goodies at a special interest group or fundraising in front of Hollywood celebrities. Obama’s agenda​—​more taxes and regulations and spending, immigration and same-sex marriage​—​seems either totally divorced from or inimical to Henry’s everyday reality. The president remains a powerful American symbol, and seems more likable on the stump than in giving a speech, but Henry and his wife seriously doubt that they can vote for him again. Contrary to what Obama says, the state of the country has not improved since 2008. The state of the country is worse.

Yet Henry also has misgivings about the Republican nominee. He does not know much about Mitt Romney, but what he has seen is not reassuring. Romney sometimes appears insincere, impersonal, and ill at ease. He keeps telling people he’s not a career politician, even though he’s been in national politics since 1994. Romney laughs awkwardly. His most passionate moment was when he told some hecklers, “Corporations are people.” Henry is more worried about Romney’s vagueness than about Bain Capital, but he’s not going to march to the barricades for private equity, either. He knows what will happen in a second Obama term: Government will grow, and there will be more bickering between Republicans and Democrats. What Henry would like to see is Romney talk straight to the American people about the manifold challenges facing the country and how he would fix them.

For those challenges are not confined to the unemployment rate. They include the state of the budget and debt, the rising cost of health care, and the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They include the Swiss-cheese U.S. tax code, with its wildly uneven and inconstant rates. They include an unpredictable and unaccountable Federal Reserve that has financed U.S. deficits by creating money. And there are other urgent issues​—​the diminution of American manufacturing, a trade policy that has led U.S. factories to relocate overseas, the degradation of schools and other public institutions, a hollowed-out military, emboldened adversaries. Romney hardly mentions them.

What worries Henry is that the Republicans may not have changed after four years’ exile from the White House. He wants plain, even blunt speech that outlines an agenda of national renewal after a trying, even grueling decade. Such an agenda would include no tax increases, but a tax code with fewer special interest loopholes; no Obamacare, but simple fixes that would increase competition, introduce price transparency, and improve portability in the health care marketplace; no more handouts to solar companies, but lifted restrictions on oil and gas drilling and pipelines that would create jobs now. There would be no more avoiding the hole America has dug for herself, but a fresh and serious approach to entitlements that saves these programs for the long haul.

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