Is Obama a Socialist?

Is Obama a socialist?

This is a question that many are asking. Right-wing pundits, from Hannity and Beck to Palin and Gingrich, are claiming that President Barack Hussain Obama is a socialist. I have actually never heard of a Indonesian Muslim, black liberation theology-believing, socialist (as conservatives are alleging). Conservatives have really uncovered a unique character in Obama. A few months ago, I called Sean Hannity’s show and asked Sean,”Do you really believe Obama is a socialist?”

Sean: “Yes.”

Me: “Really?”

Sean: “Yah-ess.”

Me: “Are you kidding me…the guy is pro-business…does a ‘socialist’ give tax cuts to 95% of Americans.”

Sean: [hangs up on me and continues talking as if I was still on the call] Ah…ah…look…we cover this over and over on this show…anyway, gotta run.”

Sean promised me a copy of his book, but then hung up on me before he could hook me up with his staff. I called his people back and said, “Sean promised me a book, and I am liberal, so I want my handout.” They thought that was funny so they sent me a copy of his book. I read it. His argument that Obama is a socialist is just silly. Basically it says that a couple of statements Obama made about “spreading the wealth around,” and his ties to liberation theologian Reverend Jeremiah Wright, proves he is a socialist. Glenn Beck has made similar arguments.

However ridiculous these arguments seem to the rational observer, right-wing propagandists are having an impact on public opinion. A poll (PDF) from Democracy Corps found that 55 percent of likely voters believe that the word “socialist” describes the president either “well” or “very well.” This is very interesting in light of the fact that the left has repeatedly criticized Obama for being to conservative. Pick up any issue of The Nation magazine (let along International Socialist Review) and you will find criticism of virtually every policy that is being pushed by Obama.

If you take a look at what real socialists think of Obama’s policies, you will find an even larger degree of discontent—to put it lightly. For instance, in Alan Maass’ recent book, “The Case for Socialism,” he repeatedly criticizes Obama for his rhetoric of change and a bottom-up society that never really turned into reality when he took office. Maass takes issue with Obama’s ongoing support for two wars (perhaps three, if we include Pakistan), the watered-down health care law that is beholden to private insurance industry, Obama’s lack of action on LGBT rights, and a host of other issues.

As a genuine socialist, Maaass sums up his view of Obama like this: “Barack Obama’s journey from ‘Yes We Can’ to ‘No We Won’t’ has been a bitter disappointment to his supporters” (p.138). “Like Bush before him, Obama’s policy is shaped by the interests of the U.S. corporate and political establishment and expanding American empire around the world” (p.60-61).

What does Obama really think about our free market capitalist system? He has said, “I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised” (The Audacity of Hope, p. 10). Hardly the words of a socialist. Yet Sean Hannity insists that Obama “sees the world in Marxist, class-warfare terms…every fiber of his being exudes resentment toward the productive, successful, and well-off in society…[he wants to] turn this nation into a full-blown socialist state…[he doesn’t] believe in the inherent fairness or goodness of the capitalist system…he is a leftist to his core…” (p. 68-107).

In his July 2010 Dissent article, What Would a Real Socialist President Do?, Jack Clark outlines a number of policy approaches that a socialist president might get behind. He concludes that Obama’s policies are not nearly as good as what a socialist might push. In Alan Maass’ book (mentioned above) on socialism, he outlines the basic views of socialism:

  1. Socialism must be a new society, created from the bottom-up; one that eliminates profit and power, organized around the principles of equality, democracy, and freedom (p.5-6).
  2. Capitalism is nothing less than radical redistribution of wealth from poor and working people to the very richest few (p.35).
  3. It isn’t simply the case that some people are rich and some are poor. Some people are rich because other people are poor (p.38).
  4. Capitalism needs oppression in all forms to survive (p.55).
  5. Wars are inevitable under capitalism (p. 66).
  6. Capitalism is built around organized theft—the theft of a portion of the value of what workers produce by the people who employ them; the owners don’t make anything themselves (p. 30-31)
  7. It is theft that a billion people go to bed each night undernourished and hungry, that one in seven Americans lives below the poverty line, that six million children under five die every year because of malnutrition and related diseases in spite of an overabundance of food supplies; Capitalism is the source of poverty, war, and a host of other evils; The point of socialist, put simply would be to stop theft (p.6, 10-11, 33, 68).
  8. The failures of the free market aren’t an accident but an inevitable result of the thirst for profit (p.25).
  9. The truth is that the rich don’t deserve having so much more than everyone else (p. 32).
  10. The current system is funded by the corporate elite, who dominate the system through legalized bribery that funds the mainstream parties (p.107).
  11. Socialism is based on the idea that the resources of society should be used to meet people’s needs…by taking the immense wealth from the rich and using it to meet the basic needs of everyone in society (p.73).
  12. Under socialism, everyone would share in the important economic decisions for society (p.75).
  13. The elementary point of socialism is to take the profit out of the equation; the resources of society would be commonly owned and controlled by everyone, and decisions made democratically (p.77).
  14. A socialist society must be democratic (p.78).
  15. The heart of socialism is making equality a reality (p.84).
  16. There has never really been a true socialist society; socialism is not communism (which has, in practice, usually been totalitarianism), and it is not the “social democratic” societies of Europe (although these are much closer to the idea than the kind of capitalism practiced in the U.S.) (p.82).
  17. Socialism can only be implemented through revolutionary change of the capitalist system, it cannot be reformed from within the current system (p.117-121).

If these are the basic ideas of socialism, can it be said that Obama believes and pushes these kinds of ideas? I don’t think he is pushing anything close to these ideas. He believes in the current system, but is trying to shape policy in a direction that will benefit ordinary people. His policy direction is not as liberal as FDR, but is more liberal than Bill Clinton. He is far from a socialist. However, he might do well to learn some lessons from Europe, who is outdoing the U.S. in numerous economic measures (not to mention life expectancy, infant mortality, and general happiness). More on this in a forthcoming post.

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