Tax Cut Deal: Focus Group Shows Democratic Frustration, Not Revolt

WASHINGTON - President Obama's decision to compromise with Republicans over extending the Bush tax cuts has undoubtedly angered many progressive voters, but how deep is the disappointment? It's too soon to find the answers in opinion surveys of the general public, but a focus group conducted in Philadelphia last night suggests frustration among Obama supporters that falls short of revolt.

Of course, a focus group is not a survey. Its non-random recruitment and small sample size cannot provide a statistically representative view of any larger population. So the results of last night's group, part of a series sponsored by The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, can tell us mostly about the 12 voters from suburban Philadelphia who participated. But rather than projecting their opinions out to all voters nationwide, this focus group provides a rich view into how these particular individuals think through their stances on issues and public figures.

In this case, Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who regularly conducts voter focus groups for the Annenberg Center, recruited a broad mix for last night's discussion. Eight had supported Obama in 2008, four voted for McCain; three self-identified as Democrats, four as Republicans, five as independents; and five voted for Republican candidates for Senate, Governor or the U.S. House in 2010. So the sample of Democrats and Obama supporters involved is smaller still.

Early in the two-hour discussion (which the Annenberg Center shared live with reporters via streaming video; participants agreed in advance to be identified), Hart turned the conversation to the ongoing debate over extending the Bush tax cuts. He reminded the assembled voters that "Democrats and the President say we need to extend the Bush tax cuts but only to those earning $250,000 of income or less," while "Republicans say this is the time that you don't start to raise taxes on anybody; tax cuts should be extended to everybody regardless of the income." He asked the group for their views, and seven of 12 voiced support for the Democratic position.

It was Teresa Malley, a Democrat and Obama voter from Buckingham, Pa., who first raised the topic of a tax cut deal, partly because Hart's previous question had probed whether the participants preferred candidates who compromise or those who stick to their positions:

I do agree with the President in the direction he's going on this, the tax cuts, however, on the question before where I said stick to your promises, I actually wrote two things down. I said, "we need a little bit of both. Stick to-ing it and compromising." When I say "stick to it," I mean, don't give away the store. You know, compromise, but…

Hart then turned this "tough question" to the group: Should the Democrats compromise? Allow the full tax cuts up to "people earning up to $500,000 or a million" or "stick to your guns?"

Although ten of 12 had previously voiced support for candidates generally willing to make a deal to get things done, none jumped to voice explicit support for compromise on the Bush tax cuts. Two participants who favored the Republican position explained their views, followed by Suzen Wysor, another Democrat and Obama supporter from Morrisville, Pa., who shared her misgivings:

It's very frustrating to me. I feel like the tax cuts for the very wealthy are very much based in being greedy and wanting more and wanting more and wanting more. And I voted for Obama because I wanted to see change. I voted Democrat because I wanted to continue…for people to fight for change. And so I want to see a change. I want to see wealthy people not getting the tax breaks that people who are not wealthy need more and deserve more.

Robert Passantino, an independent Obama voter from Yardley, demonstrated why polls on this issue can sometimes produce conflicting results. Although he had raised his hand in support of the Democratic position on tax cuts, he also expressed concern over the possibility of an expiration of tax breaks for the middle class:

I'm not encouraged because it doesn't look like there's some progress here where we actually get something done. It would be catastrophic if the tax cuts were to completely expire. Upper income taxpayers do get a benefit regardless of what happens here on the first $250,000 of income anyway. But the Democrats seem to be willing to push that number beyond $250,000 in return for an extension of unemployment benefits, which is something the Republicans have been a little bit negative about, and it actually looks like it might get both parties to give a little something.

At this point, Hart probed Obama's apparent willingness to compromise and "go above $250,000 to get unemployment benefits or other goals." "How many in this room," he asked, "would say to this president, 'You've let me down if you compromise on this issue?'"

One hand went up -- Suzan Wysor's -- and even that, only slightly. "I want to see the compromise," said Teresa Malley. "I want to know what the number gets pushed to," Wyzor added

"What if it's a million dollars," Hart asked. "Are you going to be unhappy because he let you down?"

Yes, Malley and Wyzor answered.

Hart pushed harder: "So what are you going to do if he does that?"

"Trust him," Malley replied.

"I'd write a letter," Wysor said.

"I may have to jump parties," quipped Chiho Chan, a Democrat and Obama supporter who did not vote in 2010.

Malley interjected skeptically, "You're going to vote Republican next time?"

"No," Chan said. "I'm already a Democrat, but I'll definitely be an independent."

Darryl Bennett, an independent Obama supporter who had been the first to voice support for the Democratic position on the tax cuts, felt unsure. "I don't know," he said, "I'll just be so frustrated. I dunno. Probably write him a letter too."

What does this brief exchange tell us about the way the Democratic rank and file will react?

Again, the conversation includes just a handful of Democrats and Obama supporters who had not yet heard reporting of the actual compromise "framework" announced last night. And it's just one focus group. So their comments may or may not foretell the larger public reaction.

After the debate, Peter Hart shared his thoughts via email: "These voters feel the wealthy should pay more taxes, but as unhappy as they might be with any compromise here, they certainly are not about to storm the gates. To them, there is one issue--jobs, and they do not see those coming anytime soon."