McCain, Obama Debate: What is Rich?

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What is rich? Depends who you ask. Presumptive Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama staked different territory when posed the question by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church Summit August 16. And in Goldilocks fashion, Obama might have gone a little low, McCain a little high, both leaving Americans wondering what was just right.

Obama, who went first in the question and answer session while McCain waited offstage, provided a straightforward answer. "I would argue that if you are making more than $250,000 then you are in the top three, four percent of this country," Obama told Warren in the Orange County, Calif., church. When Warren pointed out that in Orange County (where the mean household income in 2006 was $94,601, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) that $250,000 wouldn't necessarily make you rich, Obama replied that this was a relative answer depending on where you were in the country.

McCain, after emerging from his supposed cone of silence to answer the exact same questions as Obama, dodged Warren's request for an exact number. "I think that rich is – should be defined by a home, a good job and education and the ability to hand our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one we inherited." Later in his answer, McCain offered, "I think if you're talking about income, how about five million." Immediately after he said this, McCain began to backtrack and later his campaign insisted he was joking.

Jokes aside, why can’t the candidates settle on a number? Maybe the truth is in their political positions. "Obama did his best to reflect the complexity of his tax policy, noting his plan would add a new Social Security payroll tax to incomes over $250,000," says Andrew Hawkins political reporter for City Hall News. "McCain dismissed differences between rich and poor as class warfare, a fairly standard Republican position." A closer examination of their tax policy positions reveals this rift.

For Obama, the $250,000 mark is a breaking point between a tax increase for those making more and a tax decrease for those making less. According to the latest analysis from the Tax Policy Center, an independent joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institutions, "The Obama plan would reduce taxes for low- and moderate- income families, but raise them significantly for high bracket taxpayers." By positioning the breaking point of $250,000 between middle class and upper class, Obama can say only the rich will see their taxes raised in his plan. Even if this definition of rich is a little low or has to be adjusted depending on where you are in the country, Obama's answer aids his argument for tax increases.

McCain presents a plan that will decrease everyone's taxes. However, taxpayers in different income brackets will see different increases in their post-tax income. According to the Tax Policy Center, McCain would offer a 3% increase in post-tax income to low and middle-class income taxpayers while increasing the post-tax income of the top 1% of earners by 9.5%. While all Americans would see their incomes rise, the wealthy would see a greater increase.

Of course, McCain refused to offer a definition of what it means to be wealthy or rich at Saddleback Church. On Wednesday, McCain told Politico.com, “I define rich in other ways besides income. Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they’re billionaires.” By not explicitly offering an exact number of what it means to be rich, McCain avoids criticism that those he defines as "rich" are favored in his tax plan.

So with both candidates staking out different territory at Saddleback Church, which one was more effective in getting their point across? According to Hawkins: Neither. "Both responses were overshadowed by each candidates' attempt at humor- McCain's definition of wealth as incomes of $5 million and Obama's wink to Warren about multi-million dollar book deals. In the end, both candidates came off as sounding like they were in a "cone of silence."

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