Fourteen months into his presidency, in March 2010, Obama succeeded in muscling through Congress a partial government takeover of the national health-care system. That legislative accomplishment followed Obama’s decision a year earlier, without congressional approval, to nationalize two of the country’s Big Three automobile companies. In the intervening months, he had also imposed specific wage ceilings on employees at banks that had taken federal bailout money—the first such federal wage controls since an ill-fated experiment by Richard Nixon in 1971. Obama also made the federal government the direct provider of student loans, and did so by putting that significant change in American policy inside the larger health-care bill. In a September 2009 press conference, Obama suggested that a publicly funded health-care system might help “avoid some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs”—thus mistaking the act of making money, the foundational cornerstone of capitalism itself, with the generation of unnecessary expenses.
Given his conduct and rhetoric as president, we have every reason to reopen the question from 2008 and ask, quite simply, What kind of socialist is Barack Obama?
Now, when conservatives dare to suggest, tentatively or otherwise, that Obama or his party might be in the thrall of some variant of socialism, they are derided for it. In the wake of health care’s passage, for example, a Salon article mocked conservatives for thinking that Americans now live under “the Bolshevik heel.” When the RNC was debating its resolution in 2008, Robert Schlesinger, the opinion editor of U.S. News & World Report, responded: “What’s really both funny and scary about all of this is how seriously the fringe-nuts in the GOP take it.”
Similarly, in a May 2009 interview, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham mocked the president’s critics for considering Obama to be a “crypto-socialist.” By these lights, socialism is a very sophisticated, highly technical, and historically precise phenomenon that has nothing to do with the politics or ideas of the present moment, and conservatives who invoke the term to describe Obama’s policies and ideas are at best wildly imprecise and at worst purposefully rabble-rousing. And yet when liberals themselves discuss socialism and its relation to Obama, the definition of the term “socialist” seems to loosen up considerably. Only four months before Meacham’s mockery of conservatives, he co-authored a cover story for his magazine titled “We’re All Socialists Now,” in which he and Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (grandson of the six-time Socialist-party presidential candidate Norman Thomas) argued that the growth of government was making us like a “European,” i.e. socialist, country. At the same time, a host of Left-liberal writers, most prominently E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, were floating the idea that the new president was ushering in a new age of “social democracy.” The left-wing activist-blogger Matthew Yglesias, echoing the Obama White House view that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, said the Wall Street meltdown offered a “real opportunity” for “massive socialism.”
In an April 2009 essay published in Foreign Policy, John Judis modestly called “prescient” a prediction he himself had made in the mid-1990s: “Once the sordid memory of Soviet communism is laid to rest and the fervor of anti-government hysteria abates,” he had written in a symposium in the American Enterprise, “politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism.” In his Foreign Policy piece, Judis claimed vindication in the age of Obama: “Socialism, once banished from polite conversation, has made a startling comeback.” For Judis, today’s resurgent socialism isn’t the totalitarian variant we associate with the Soviet Union or Cuba but rather that of the “Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, whose economies were shaped by socialist agitation.” This is “another kind of socialism—call it ‘liberal socialism,’” Judis explains, and it “has a lot to offer.”
These ideas were given further empirical weight by an April 2009 Rasmussen poll that found “only 53 percent of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.” Of the remaining 47 percent, 20 percent preferred socialism to capitalism, while 27 percent were unsure. Meanwhile, adults “under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37 percent prefer capitalism, 33 percent socialism, and 30 percent are undecided.” Yglesias argued that the data “reflects the fact that on a basic level ‘socialism’ is good branding. The whole idea is that we should put society first rather than capital, or money. That sounds good!”
Harold Meyerson, who actually calls himself a socialist, wanted it both ways. In a March 4, 2009, Washington Post column, he argued that anyone calling Obama a socialist didn’t know what he was talking about: “Take it from a democratic socialist: Laissez-faire American capitalism is about to be supplanted not by socialism but by a more regulated, viable capitalism. And the reason isn’t that the woods are full of secret socialists who are only now outing themselves.”
But after the Rasmussen data came out the following month, Meyerson changed his tune. In a column titled “Rush Builds a Revolution,” he argued that conservative attempts to demonize Obama as a socialist had backfired and were leading Americans, particularly young Americans, to embrace the label. “Rush [Limbaugh] and his boys are doing what Gene Debs and his comrades never really could,” Meyerson wrote. “In tandem with Wall Street, they are building socialism in America.” Moreover, whereas a more “viable, regulated capitalism” at first distinguished Obamaism from socialism, it now defined Obama’s brand of socialism. “Today,” Meyerson observed, “the world’s socialist and social democratic parties basically champion a more social form of capitalism, with tighter regulations on capital, more power for labor and an expanded public sector to do what the private sector cannot (such as providing universal access to health care).”
Surely if fans of President Obama’s program feel free to call it socialist, critics may be permitted to do likewise.