Legislators are now locked in a game of chicken. Republicans have vowed to reject any tax increases. Mr. Obama pushed back, promising in a Rose Garden speech on Sept. 19 to veto any plan that cuts Medicare without raising taxes on the wealthy.
The deficit debacle is one impetus for cries of "tax the rich" on the left and subsequent howls of protest on the right. The other reason comes from life outside the halls of Congress. If you think the public ledger looks bad, consider the personal pocketbook.
More than 46 million Americans now live in poverty, according to census data released on Sept. 13. That number is the highest it's been since the US Census Bureau started keeping track 52 years ago.
Unemployment is hovering stubbornly around 9 percent, prompting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to declare a "national crisis" and Hallmark to release its first-ever line of layoff greeting cards. (One features an angry Persian cat offering to cough up a hairball on your ex-employer. Another depicts cartoon animals slouching toward the "unemployment office.")
The gulf between rich and poor is at its widest since the 1920s, and the wealthiest 1 percent of American households now take in more than 20 percent of total US income, a figure that's doubled in the past three decades. Over the same time period, marginal income tax rates on top earners dropped from 70 percent to 35 percent.
"It's become a moral issue rather than just an economic one," Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary and liberal political economist, says of taxation. "Most people in this country are flat on their backs economically. It's the worst economy since the Great Depression. We have a huge budget deficit that's getting worse."