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How Biden's plan to tax the wealthy is playing in a bellwether battleground

In evenly-divided Saginaw County, approval of the president's proposal is common. But the other side of the tax coin is represented, too.
Saginaw County, almost evenly divided politically, will be a battleground for Washington's prescriptions on the economy — including tax rates.
Saginaw County, almost evenly divided politically, will be a battleground for Washington's prescriptions on the economy — including tax rates.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file

SAGINAW, Mich. — A hundred dollars usually covers a weekly grocery run for Melissa Miller's family of four.

On Wednesday, as she packed shopping bags into the back of her car at a suburban Kroger store here, she marveled at a $131.07 receipt — and worried about her pandemic food stamp benefits sunsetting at the end of the school year.

Miller, 38, couldn't pick between the two candidates in last year's presidential election, but she approves of President Joe Biden's plans to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans to help underwrite his agenda.

"Do it," she said. "They should be paying a little bit more."

That sentiment, familiar in Democratic messaging, is common among residents of this swing county in a swing state, where the unemployment rate — 6.8 percent in March — remains higher than the national average.

But the other side of the tax coin is represented here, too: Republican arguments that heftier levies will result in corporations passing costs to consumers, wealthy individuals finding loopholes, and the economy slowing down.

"When they jack up the taxes on companies, the prices are going to go up," Orval Wolfgram, a retired General Motors engineer, said. "It's going to be back on us."

This county, almost evenly divided politically, will be a battleground for Washington's prescriptions on the economy, including tax rates. In 2016, Donald Trump won here by a margin of less than 1 percent, breaking a string of seven straight Democratic nominees taking the county. Four years later, Biden beat Trump by 303 votes, or less than three-tenths of a percentage point, on his way to flipping the state and the presidency.

He has said over and over, during the campaign and the first few months of his presidency, that the rich should "pay their fair share." Surveys dating back decades show sustained majority support for that idea, and John Anzalone, Biden's pollster, told Axios earlier this year that it polls better than most of the president's proposals.

"The middle class is tired of carrying the tax burden for the country," Anzalone said. "They are pissed off. They aren't anti-rich or anti-corporate. They are anti-not-paying your fair share."

In a national NBC News poll released late last month, 59 percent of adults said Biden's American Jobs Plan — which would raise taxes to at least partially pay for $2 trillion in spending on roads, bridges, broadband, housing and other items — is a good idea. Only 21 percent said it is not, and 19 percent did not offer an opinion.

The true test of the popularity of Biden's agenda won't arrive until the midterm elections November next year. He is coming to Michigan next week to campaign for his plans, but not to a politically competitive area like Saginaw County.

Instead, he'll promote incentives for electric cars at a Ford plant in heavily Democratic Dearborn, a densely populated Detroit suburb in overwhelmingly Democratic Wayne County.

He'll get more bang for his time in the more populous area, but he will also avoid the resistance he would get from some residents here. Some of them have information — and some have misinformation — about his plans.

"I don't like what he's doing to remove bridges for racial equity," Cindy Brown, 59 and a Trump supporter, said incorrectly describing one of Biden's proposals.

"The east side is divided by the river," Brown, who is white, said of the predominantly Black section of Saginaw east of the city's namesake river. "They're coming across the river."

While bridges connect communities, Biden has proposed taking out some highways that have long effectively segregated cities.

Dolores Adkins, Brown's 79-year-old mother, didn't vote for Trump or Biden. She simply said Biden is proposing "too much money" for her tastes.

Waiting for a bus at the Rosa Parks Transfer Center in downtown Saginaw on Wednesday, Craig Jones, 42, said that the federal government should be doing more for the public.

"It's been helpful, but not enough," said Jones, who recently landed a job at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant. He didn't vote in 2020, but he likes Biden's approach to raising revenue.

"It's about time someone is taxing the rich," he said.

At the same time, according to several unemployed men who spoke to NBC News, benefits have been generous enough to discourage a return to work.

"They're paying probably a little more than you would get at a regular job," said David Abrams, 24, who had a job sorting and washing auto parts for two years before the pandemic. "Do I want to rush myself back to work?" he asked, rhetorically.

In the midst of tumult, Miller isn't buying the notion that raising taxes on the wealthy will choke the economy and hurt lower- and middle-class families.

"On a serious note," she said, "it's bulls---."