From the park fronting the White House to the California coast, tens of thousands of protesters staged anti-tax “tea parties” to mark tax-filing day and attack the Obama administration’s spending plans.
A soaked crowd of well over 1,000 demonstrators turned out for a rally at Lafayette Park across from the White House despite a steady rain muddying the grounds, one of hundreds of coordinated events held in cities and towns throughout the country.
“We got tired of just talking about it around our kitchen table and thought maybe we should step out and do something,” said Susan Fisher, 34, who made the 30-mile trek to the D.C. rally from Woodbine, Md., with her 4-year-old daughter, Audrey. “We’ve got to make ends meet and we’re all cutting back, but the government isn’t.”
The protests came on a day when the White House released President Obama’s personal tax returns, showing Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paid a total of $933,206 in state and federal taxes on combined 2008 income of $2.65 million.
Conservatives touted the tea parties as the beginning of a grass-roots movement that could change the debate on taxes and spending in Washington. But liberals scoffed at the notion, accusing Republicans activists and conservative media outlets of underwriting and staging the gatherings.
They pointed to the critical organizational role played by FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington and led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, who is now a lobbyist.
“The tea parties are organized by D.C.-based corporate lobbyists who want more of the same failed [Republican] policies that got us here,” said a senior House Democratic aide.
But Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative public policy group, dismissed the liberal accusations.
“These [tea parties] are not orchestrated in any sense, and, frankly, anyone who suggests they have been organized is exaggerating,” Mr. Hanna said. “They are not very well organized, but that’s how you would expect a genuinely grass-roots movement to take place.”
“This is absolutely a grass-roots movement,” said Anthony Gillis, coordinator of the Colorado Tea Party, which attracted a crowd of 5,000 to downtown Denver. “Republicans certainly can become involved, but they’re not controlling it, and we don’t want them to control it.”
Ron Bonjean, a Republican communications strategist, added, “The hardest thing for the GOP has been to punch through the Obama media cycle to get Americans to visualize the problem with higher taxes. Hopefully, this will be the start of maybe more demonstrations and finding ways to tie higher taxes with Democrats in the future.”
But a Gallup Poll released this week appeared to call those hopes into question.
The poll found that 48 percent of Americans say the amount of federal income taxes they pay is “about right,” with 46 percent saying it is “too high” - one of the most positive assessments Gallup has measured since 1956.
In Denver, the crowd that gathered outside the Colorado State Capitol had a definite right-wing feel to it. Many protesters held signs criticizing the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders, and the S-word - socialism - was employed liberally.
But Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank, reminded the protesters that the Republican administration of President George W. Bush wasn’t exactly known for penny-pinching.
“This is not a partisan protest,” said Mr. Caldara. “We can’t forget that it was another political party that teed up this ball so that the [Democrats] could drive it.”
But other speakers apparently did not get the memo. “We will use the courts, we will use the ballot boxes to bring Barack Obama down,” “Gunny” Bob Newman, a Denver radio talk show host, said to enthusiastic cheers.
Organizers said Tea Party events were held in all 50 states, from the Boston Common to downtown Atlanta to San Diego, where on an unseasonably wet, damp day, 1,500 energized Tea Party protesters showed up at historic Spanish Landing Park on San Diego Bay.
The Washington demonstration was halted shortly after 2 p.m. after a suspicious package - a package of tea bags - was thrown over the White House fence, prompting Secret Service officials to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Park and forcing protesters to the sidewalks north of the park.
Protesters were allowed to return to the park later in the afternoon when the package was determined to be non-threatening.
Michael Brown, a small-business owner from Oakton, Va., at the Washington gathering, said he blamed Democrats and Mr. Obama more because they are in power and are pursuing what he called a pro-tax agenda.
“All I ask is, leave us the hell alone.” said Mr. Brown, while listening to protest speeches at Lafayette Park.
Even as the tax protesters were building steam across the street, Mr. Obama used a White House event to promote himself as a tax-cutter.
“My administration has taken far-reaching action to give tax cuts to the Americans who need them,” Mr. Obama said at an event intended to highlight tax cuts, credits and refunds enacted since he took office.
Mr. Obama said his “making work pay” tax refund of $400 for individuals and $800 for families who make less than $250,000 is the “the most progressive tax cut in American history.”
The White House also released a long list of tax credits and refunds they’ve implemented, largely through the $787 billion stimulus legislation passed in February.
But many of Wednesday’s anti-tax protesters said the Obama tax cuts amounted to only a token reduction and that higher taxes are inevitably on the way given the administration’s vast spending ambitions.
“It’s what, equal to $8 every two weeks? These are not substantial tax breaks that won’t make any difference in my life,” said Josh Lineberger, 29, of Herndon.
Playing off Mr. Obama’s “Change you can believe in” campaign mantra, Mr. Lineberger held aloft a sign reading, “”Change is all we’ll have left.”
• Valerie Richardson reported from Denver. Rick Amato in San Diego and Don Lambro in Washington contributed to this story.