The tax platforms of president Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney could hardly be more different. With each camp painting postapocalyptic pictures of America's economy if the other side's vision become law, the election's implications for clients and advisors are as divergent as the candidates' tacks.
In a nutshell, the president is targeting top earners and wealthy families for higher taxes, partly to bolster social safety net programs amid stubbornly high unemployment and rising poverty.
Romney's approach is the exact opposite. Tax cuts-the touchstone of a smaller government and dynamic economic growth, he says-dominate his "Fairer, Flatter and Simpler" tax-policy slogan. In this worldview, taxation is little more than an institutionalized game of Robin Hood to be curtailed.
Both platforms have been sharply criticized. Obama is decried as the poster boy for big government and deficit spending. Even by taxing the rich, his 2013 budget proposal bleeds red ink in the trillion-dollar neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Romney's detractors say his tax-cutting plan benefits the affluent, hurts the middle and lower classes, and could enlarge the federal deficit despite his parallel goal to slash federal spending deeply, an action some say could trigger a recession and push joblessness still higher.
And both candidates have proposed quashing business tax breaks in return for lower corporate rates, although neither has offered anything to prevent Congress from reinserting exorcised preferences back into the tax code. "That's basically what happened with the simplification from the '86 tax act. That is always a risk," says Mark Luscombe, federal tax analyst at CCH Inc., a business-information publisher in Riverwoods, Ill.
The accompanying chart highlights some of the politicians' stances, bearing in mind their positions may yet evolve. Many of Obama's current proposals are little changed from his 2008 run against John McCain. For example, he remains committed to letting the Bush tax cuts expire for high-end earners. This includes reinstating the top two brackets at 36% and 39.6%, up from the current 33% and 35%, and charging these taxpayers a 20% rate on their long-term gains. No more preferential dividend treatment would be allowed, while itemized deductions would be limited and personal exemptions phased out.
Apart from the sunset of the Bush tax cuts, Obama also wants to limit the benefit of many tax breaks for this group of taxpayers to 28 cents on the dollar.
Who would get hit? Couples earning more than $250,000 and singles earning above $200,000 is what you might have heard, but it's not that simple. These figures are in 2009 dollars and would be indexed for inflation since then. That would jump the thresholds to approximately $260,300 and $208,250 if they were in effect for 2012. Additional adjustments would be made for certain items. For the nerdy details, see page 70 of the president's budget proposal, at http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/Documents/General-Explanations-FY2013.pdf.
Obama's plan would change the taxation on the carried interests of private-equity managers and other high rollers from capital gain to ordinary income. He has advocated requiring million-dollar earners to pay a 30% minimum tax rate-the so-called "Buffett rule."
The president also wants to extend certain expiring or already-expired provisions. Those include above-the-line deductions for qualified tuition and teachers' classroom expenses, as well as the option to itemize state and local sales taxes instead of income taxes.