Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Obama isn't a socialist (but he ought to check it out)

Back in March 2009 President Obama denied being a socialist, insisting that he was "actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles." As John Nichols observes:

There’s more than a kernel of truth to this statement. Obama really is avoiding consideration of socialist, or even mildly social democratic, responses to the problems that confront him. He took the single-payer option off the table at the start of the healthcare debate, rejecting the approach that in other countries has provided quality care to all citizens at lower cost. His supposedly “socialist” response to the collapse of the auto industry was to give tens of billions in bailout funding to GM and Chrysler, which used the money to lay off thousands of workers and then relocate several dozen plants abroad—an approach about as far as a country can get from the social democratic model of using public investment and industrial policy to promote job creation and community renewal. And when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, threatening the entire Gulf Coast, instead of putting the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies in charge of the crisis, Obama left it to the corporation that had lied about the extent of the spill, had made decisions based on its bottom line rather than environmental and human needs, and had failed at even the most basic tasks.

So we should take the president at his word when he says he’s acting on free-market principles. The problem, of course, is that Obama’s rigidity in this regard is leading him to dismiss ideas that are often sounder than private-sector fixes. Borrowing ideas and approaches from socialists would not make Obama any more of a socialist than Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. All these presidential predecessors sampled ideas from Marxist tracts or borrowed from Socialist Party platforms so frequently that the New York Times noted in a 1954 profile the faith of an aging Norman Thomas that he “had made a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties”—ideas like “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.” The fact is that many of the men who occupied the Oval Office before Obama knew that implementation of sound socialist or social democratic ideas did not put them at odds with the American experiment or the Constitution.

The point here is not to defend socialism. What we should be defending is history—American history, with its rich and vibrant hues, some of them red. The past should be consulted not merely for anecdotes or factoids but for perspective on the present. Such a perspective empowers Americans who seek a robust debate, one that samples from a broad ideological spectrum—an appropriate endeavor in a country where Tom Paine imagined citizens who, “by casting their eye over a large field, take in likewise a large intellectual circuit, and thus approaching nearer to an acquaintance with the universe, their atmosphere of thought is extended, and their liberality fills a wider space.”

It's a good read.

ps - He closes with this thought:

We live in complex times, when profound economic, social and environmental challenges demand a range of responses. Socialists certainly don’t have all the answers, even if polling suggests that more Americans find appeal in the word “socialist” today than they have in decades. But without socialist ideas and advocacy, we will not have sufficient counterbalance to an anti-government impulse that has less to do with libertarianism than with manipulation of the debate by all-powerful corporations.

Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were not socialists. But the nation benefited from their borrowing of socialist and social democratic ideas. Barack Obama is certainly not a socialist. But he, and the nation he leads, would be well served by a similar borrowing from the people who once imagined Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty.

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