Why Obama's the Least Socialistic President in Modern History (And That's a Shame)
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The Republican presidential candidates keep calling Barack Obama a socialist. If they're trying to invoke the Red Menace like Republicans of past campaigns, they're a generation too late. Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 have no memory of the Cold War. Today they have a more positive impression of socialism than they do of capitalism.
The word “socialism” can be applied to a range of economic models, from Cuban collectivism to the Western European social democracies that are the home of some of the world's most successful corporations.
But until this election came along it had never been used to describe someone who expanded the private health insurance system, let a negligent company keep control of the cleanup for an environmental disaster it caused, offered to cut retirement and elder health benefits, and repeatedly insisted that the government should cut costs. This president is less socialistic than most of his predecessors, including many Republicans.
The irony is that socialist-inspired policies are popular with Americans, including many Republicans, even if the label is not. Polls suggest that a more “socialist” Obama would also be a more popular candidate, and the same is true of his opponents.
The word “socialism” is used to describe a spectrum of possible economies ranging from the Scandinavian model, where government involvement co-exists with multinational corporations, to the more communistic Cuban model and the idealistic anarcho-syndicalism of the anti-Franco insurgents in the Spanish Civil War.
The social democracy model emphasizes expanded public rights to social services and a more distributive tax base, but leaves ownership of production in capitalist hands. This form of socialism has had a major influence on the governments and economies of Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Finland. It hasn't interfered with the success of multinational corporations like Mercedes-Benz, Nokia, Deutschebank, Barclays Bank, or Ferrari.
Socialist ideas have a long history in the United States. Socialist and left-leaning parties were the first to propose a number of ideas that are now considered core American ideals, including civil rights, antipoverty programs, Social Security and Medicare.
The Pink Menace
But socialism was once linked with the Soviet Union, America's nuclear foe, which gave it an aura of treachery and danger it no longer posseses.
The Republicans who call Obama a socialist are using a GOP tactic that reached its zenith in Richard Nixon's 1950 Senate victory against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon supporters handed out thousands of “Pink Sheet” flyers that year comparing his opponent's voting record to that of socialist-leaning New York City Representative Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio ran on the American Labor Party ticket and belonged to several groups that were regarded as “red.”
Douglas considered Nixon's actions thuggery, as did a number of other Americans in both parties. She called him as “a young man in a dark shirt,” which was an indirect allusion to the fascists the US had been fighting five years before. (Upon hearing her remark, Nixon displayed an odd unfamiliarity with human anatomy. “Why, I'll castrate her!” the future president said. He also described Douglas as “pink right down to her underwear.”)
Douglas found it hard to believe these attacks could be effective, and some people think her delay in responding to them cost her the election. But they did, and this set the tone for the next six decades of GOP campaigns.
Newt Gingrich was the first of the current crop of contenders to attack Obama with the socialist label, as political writer John Nichols reminded me in a recent interview. Gingrich published a book last year titled To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Gingrich's publisher called it a “dire warning for America,” which is “at risk for its very survival” after electing “the most liberal president ever.”
Gingrich reacted to the GOP's 2010 electoral victories in his book by saying, “The American people rejected the secular-Socialist machine that had seized control of the Federal government.”
In fact, one of the reasons Republicans really won in 2010 was because they ran a series of very effective ads around a so-called “Seniors' Bill of Rights” whose key proviso was a direct attack on “socialist” Obama's repeated attempts to negotiate entitlement cuts: “No cuts to Medicare to pay for another program,” the Republicans declared. “Zero.”
Yes, these Republicans were defending one of our country's most socialistic, and most popular programs, while accusing their “socialist” opponent of trying to cut it.
Gingrich's 2011 book waxes triumphant about recent conservative victories int Europe's three largest economies -- Germany, France and Great Britain. Within 18 months those governments' policies had plunged Europe into a deep recessionary spiral. He singles out the British election as a vote to “reverse years of socialist decay through through a dramatic, Thatcher-like policy of radically shrinking the public sector, slashing government spending, reducing welfare, and restoring public enterprise.”
What he didn't say is that Great Britain is now struggling with setbacks in unemployment, wages and growth, and recently weathered a series of nationwide riots sparked by economic conditions.
Gingrich was firm in his predictions for Obama in 2011. The president, said Gingrich, would embrace “card check” politics for unions and promote cap-and-trade to slow the ongoing destruction of our fragile ecosystem. Gingrich's predictions proved false as Obama quickly abandoned both initiatives.
Nostradamus he isn't. But Gingrich, undeterred by reality, still insists that Obama is imposing a “radical,” “secular/socialist state” on the American people.
The socialist theme was quickly picked up by the other GOP candidates. “Obama's socialist policies are bankrupting America,” said a Rick Perry TV ad. Michele Bachmann concluded her Iowa campaign by declaring she wouldn't let Obama “implement socialism” in the United States. Rick Santorum accused Obama of not doing enough to fight “militant socialism” around the world (the first draft of his presentation used the phrase “godless socialism”), adding that Obama is a “radical.”
Front-runner Mitt Romney was the lone holdout, the only candidate not to label the president with the S-word. But he couldn't hold out forever, especially since both his rivals and the press pressed him about it repeatedly. He tried to avoid the question when he was asked directly whether Obama was a socialist, but finally allowed that the president “takes his political inspiration from Europe and from the socialist democrats in Europe.” (Romney pointedly described Europe's “social democrats” as “socialist democrats” for maximum effect.)
And despite this year's lofty declarations against personal attacks, John McCain wasn't above a little red-baiting himself in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign. "At least in Europe the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives," he said then. "They use real numbers and honest language.”
The Enemy Within
In time-honored fashion, the red-baiters soon began to turn on one another. Gingrich described Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” whose campaign was studying “European socialist ideas.” And a caller to Rush Limbaugh's program even accused Limbaugh, who is above all else a Republican Party operative, of supporting the “socialist” Romney.
“If you're going to start throwing the 'socialism' term around there,” Limbaugh answered indignantly, “I'll tell you, these are times of tumult.”
Now he tells us.
Ron Paul's extreme libertarianism makes him, authentically, the least socialistic candidate in the race. Yet Paul was the only candidate who refused to call Obama a socialist. He's a “corporatist,” said Paul, an assessment with considerably more evidence to support it.
Obama's Socialist Scorecard
Is Barack Obama a radical socialist, a "corporatist," or something else? A friendly journalist describes him as a “pro-business populist,” and that's certainly been the posture he's tried to take. If “thin-skinned business leaders” ignore his rhetoric and “look at his proposals and record,” writes Jonathan Alter, “they might be pleasantly surprised.” Indeed.
John Nichols is the author of a book titled The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism. When asked if Obama is a socialist he laughed and said, “Afraid not.”
“In fact,” Nichols added, “Obama is one of the most un-socialistic presidents this country's had in the last 150 years.”
“When Barack Obama was asked to reform the healthcare system,” Nichols said, “he rejected all of the models based on social democratic proposals, as well as their American 'single-payer' equivalent, and instead went for insurance reforms reforms that were initially proposed by the (conservative) Heritage Foundation.” (The United States is the only developed nation without a “socialized” healthcare system, and its costs are twice those of many comparable countries.)
“There you see him rejecting social democratic ideas and going for a conservative model.”
“Look at the Gulf oil spill,” Nichols added, “a real disaster for America and the world. President Obama could have taken the response that Franklin Roosevelt and, I would argue, Dwight D. Eisenhower would have taken. He could have said 'Here's a big corporation that's caused us a huge , disastrous problem, and we cannot trust them to address that problem because of their past and current activities. So we're going to nationalize this problem … control will be handed over to the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies. Then we're going to assess this corporation for the cost of the cleanup.'”
“That's a solution with a social democratic overlay,” said Nichols, “but also one that's very much rooted in the way this country's always done things. Obama didn't do that.”
Ironically, a more “socialistic” agenda could improve Obama's popularity – even among Republicans!
Polls taken during the health reform debate showed that 51 percent of Republican voters wanted a "public option" in the health bill that would allow them to purchase coverage from the "socialist" Medicare system. Even stronger majorities of voters overall supported the public option. But Obama never fought for it, and some reports indicated he had traded it away early on in return for a promise from the for-profit hospital industry that it would not resist the bill aggressively.
Other polls have shown that overwhelming majorities of Republican voters, including Tea Party members, oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare in order to reduce the federal deficit. Yet Obama created a “Deficit Commission” and appointed as its co-chairs two politicians who were publicly in favor of doing just that, and he has continued to offer cuts of that nature as part of a "Grand Bargain" with Republican leaders in Congress. A "millionaire's tax" is also popular among Republican voters, who also joined with other Americans in wanting the government to act more decisively to create jobs.
If the nation were governed by a referendum of Republican voters -- just Republicans -- it would be more "socialistic" than it has been under President Obama. Since these policies are supported even more strongly by Democrats and independents, a more “socialistic” Obama – one who rejected cuts to Medicare and Social Security, fought more aggressively for a “millionaires' tax,” pushed a public option, and backed a more aggressive jobs agenda – would be more popular with American voters across the political spectrum.
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.”
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.
And as Obama has embraced more seemingly “socialist” mainstream ideas – tax structure, or greater infrastructure spending – his popularity has risen.
Whatever happens, one thing's already clear: Love him or not, Barack Obama is no socialist. But socialist-inspired ideas remain as popular – and as American – as ever. That's something politicians in both parties would do well to remember.