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President Obama's tax rate was 20.5%, lower than his secretary's

The White House says it underscores the argument for his 'Buffett rule' on taxing wealthier people.

April 13, 2012|By Kathleen Hennessey and Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Their tax form for 2011 shows that President Obama and his wife, Michelle, paid a 20.5% federal tax rate on $789,674 in adjusted gross income.
Their tax form for 2011 shows that President Obama and his wife, Michelle,… (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — As President Obama mounts an aggressive campaign on what he calls tax fairness, his own tax burden has fallen to the lowest of his time in the White House, lower than many who make far less — including his secretary.

The president and first lady reported a joint adjusted gross income of $789,674 last year and paid $162,074 in federal taxes, or about 20.5%, according to the tax return released Friday by the White House. That income keeps the Obamas in the top 1% of taxpayers.

The Obamas' overall tax rate is slightly lower than the average for people in the top tier — largely because he made significant donations to charity. Data compiled by the Tax Policy Center show the average income tax rate for those making more than $532,000 is 24%. Obama's rate was closer to the average for household earning more than $210,000 — 19.2%

The Obamas' overall rate was still much higher than that of most middle-income Americans. Households making between $60,000 and $100,000 paid on average 8% of their income in federal incomes taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. Polling consistently has shown that most people think they pay much more in income taxes than they do, in part because people focus on their marginal tax rate — the tax they pay on the last dollar they earn — not their average tax rate.

Obama's rate is also notably higher than the one paid by his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire investor who paid about 14% of his income in federal income taxes last year, according to a summary of his tax return that he disclosed earlier this year.

But the Obamas' tax bite was slightly lower than the rate paid by the president's secretary, Anita Decker Breckenridge, who makes a $95,000 salary, the White House confirmed on Friday.

The White House would not disclose what Breckenridge paid, saying only that it was a "slightly higher rate" than her boss'. That "is exactly why we need to reform our tax code and ask the wealthiest to pay their fair share," said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.

The annual disclosure of the Obamas' taxes was punctuation to the president's call for the so-called Buffett rule, legislation named after Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who famously complained that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary. The Senate is due to vote next week on the rule, which would require those making more than $1 million to pay at least 30% in federal taxes. It is all but certain to be blocked by Senate Republicans.

The rule, however, would not have affected Obama's taxes had it been in place last year, because his income in 2011 fell below $1 million. The Obamas earned more in the previous few years —as much as $5.5 million in 2009 — because of sales of Obama's books.

Spokesman Jay Carney said that the president believed he should pay more in taxes and noted that he would pay more under other proposed policies, notably the administration's proposal to endPresident George W. Bush's tax cuts for couples earning more than $250,000. In 2003, before the second Bush tax cut, Obama paid about the same federal income tax rate as he did this year, even though his income this year was about three times as high.

The Obamas donated $172,130 to charities in 2011, or about 22% of their adjusted gross income. The largest beneficiary was the Fisher House Foundation, which received $117,130 — the after-tax proceeds of the president's children's book, "Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters."

The Obama campaign used the returns to push Romney to disclose more of his financial records.

"Gov. Romney has yet to provide tax returns from the period in which he made hundreds of millions as a corporate buyout specialist, or as governor of Massachusetts, the experience he says qualifies him to be president," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement. "Mitt Romney's defiance of decades of precedent set by presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, including his own father, begs the question — what does he have to hide?"

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul described the Obama campaign complaint as a "sideshow" and a distraction from the issues important to voters. Romney has released his 2010 return and an estimate of 2011 taxes, she said. Romney has filed for an extension of the deadline for his 2011 tax return, as he has done in past years, and will release it "sometime in the next six months and prior to the election," she said. "He will release his full 2011 return when it is filed."

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, reported an adjusted gross income of $379,035, and they paid $87,900 in federal tax. The Bidens' tax burden, at 23%, was higher than the Obamas'. They donated $5,540 to charity.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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