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Why Obama's the Least Socialistic President in Modern History (And That's a Shame)

If the nation were governed by a referendum of Republican voters it would be more "socialistic" than it has been under President Obama.

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Red Republicans

It's proven popular with previous presidents from both parties. In fact, based on their policies, most Republican presidents of the last century were more “socialistic” than Barack Obama. Eisenhower built the federal highway system and presided over the IRS when the top marginal tax rate for high earners was 91 percent.

Nixon proposed a minimum guaranteed income for all Americans, which he called a “negative income tax," without any Clinton-era preconditions like "workfare." It would have applied to all families with children, and passed Congress but failed in the Senate. Nixon also imposed wage and price controls in 1971to control inflation. These controls, while not considered traditionally “socialistic,” were a radical imposition of state control over the private-sector economy.

Even Herbert Hoover, who presided over the Crash of 1929 and is often contrasted with FDR, described himself as a “progressive.” He expanded the civil service, proposed a Department of Education and a guaranteed pension for all Americans, enlarged the national park system, ended private oil leases on government land, and formed an antitrust division within the Justice Department.

And, much as it irritates Republicans to be reminded of it, Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times.

Obama has proposed a reasonable $476 billion program of infrastucture repair, but he's avoided the kinds of bold initiatives put forward by his Republican predecessors: No Hoover-like litany of progressive reforms, no major public projects like Eisenhower's highways, no Nixon-style negative income tax. And he certainly hasn't responded to our ongoing economic crisis with any state interventions on the scale of Nixon's wage and price controls.

Socialism's Super Salesmen

All this name-calling may not be helping the GOP, but there may be another surprise beneficiary: Socialism. The once-stigmatized ideology has become more acceptable since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Pew Research Center reports that 31 percent of Americans have a favorable response to the term, while 61 percent respond negatively. The public's feelings about capitalism soured slightly in 2011, with approval/disapproval shifting from 52/37 to 50/40.

What's much more striking is the fact that, for the first time, more young people think favorably of socialism than they do of capitalism.  Forty-nine percent of young people aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, while 43 percent see it negatively. Twenty months ago those numbers were reversed, making this a dramatic shift in youth opinion.

Which raises the question: Are today's Republican presidential candidates socialism's best salesmen?

Of course, many factors could be driving young people's improving opinion of socialism. Youth unemployment is at record highs, and they can see that little is being done to change that. The Occupy movement has highlighted the ills of unfettered capitalism. But could they also be watching the comic-opera figures on the GOP debate stage and being drawn to anything that group dislikes?

Nichols thinks so. “When they hear Republican politicians ranting and raving about socialism,” he said, “young people may be thinking, 'If these yahoos are against it, it can't be that bad.' At the very least, I think it's opened up a great deal of interest in socialism as a alternative.”

Socialism's Return?

Nichols notes that socialist parties were once part of a vigorous American debate and government's role in society. He believes that socialism should re-enter the mainstream and serve the same purpose on the left that libertarianism serves on the right.

There are even places where the two ideologies can collaborate, like civil liberties and foreign policy. As Nichols notes, many of today's mainstream ideas were first articulated by either libertarian or socialist thinkers.

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