A tricky question: Is Obama a socialist?

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman
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“Do you think President Obama is a socialist?” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wants every Republican candidate for Congress this year to be asked that question. Their hope: To brand those who answer “yes” as an extremist or a kook.

But many Americans would readily answer yes to that question. And who could blame them? Without a doubt, Barack Obama is the most liberal president ever to occupy the White House, and he’s certainly too close to socialism for my comfort level.

But we need to be accurate about such a charge. So when MSNBC’s Ed Schultz asked me on-air if I consider Obama a socialist, I answered, “No, but…” I then labeled Obama a “social Democrat.” That’s someone who believes government should control businesses, rather than owning them outright, as socialism espouses. It’s an intermediate stage between capitalism and socialism.

It’s also a dangerous philosophy—because it puts us on a slippery slope toward actual socialism.

Social democracy is the perfect cover for big-government advocates. It lets them act as puppeteers pulling the strings of our economy while claiming they don’t actually want to take over. Why should they take the political heat and buy companies when businesses can be controlled through taxes, regulations and legislation? (Okay, General Motors is one exception, so Obama posed as “reluctant” to acquire it with taxpayer money.)

We’ve seen plenty of examples of how this social-Democrat philosophy is being pushed by the Obama administration, even without Congress. And the Heritage Foundation and others are sounding ample warnings about Obama’s agenda:

• To force businesses to toe the line and be politically correct about global warming, his Securities and Exchange Commission has ordered companies to report on their “carbon footprint” and plans to respond to climate change.

• Obama’s health care plans would put the squeeze on private insurance companies and the entire medical sector. Many consider it the way to transition toward full government-run “single payer” medicine. Remember Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) comments that a public option would lead to single-payer?

• Even without Congressional passage of a cap-and-trade energy tax, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has declared carbon dioxide and other gasses a public danger and is writing draconic regulations over almost everything that uses energy. A Heritage Foundation paper says these could bankrupt the nation. Untold jobs would be lost as millions of American businesses are stifled.

• Calling it the “Livable Communities” and “smart growth” program, Obama has the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA and the Transportation Department pushing plans that will force Americans into smaller homes. Restrictions on growth, land development, and the use of automobiles would shoehorn us into what Heritage’s Ronald Utt calls “hobbit homes.”

• Obama has officially decreed that federal regulations can be justified by behavioral economics (aka “libertarian paternalism”). The belief is that we should be nudged into behaving as the government decides we should behave. The results might be positive in some areas, but the philosophy can be stretched too far. Rather than people controlling government, it can lead to government control of people “for their own good.”

• Riding the public wave of anger over bank bailouts, Obama wants legislation that could lead to … even more bailouts. Heritage’s David John notes, “The Obama administration’s proposal for financial regulatory reform is unrealistic and would give government regulators almost unlimited powers to take over or micromanage financial institutions.”

The evidence clearly shows that Obama wants ever-expanding government control.

Private lenders have been mostly pushed out of the student loan business, and a final shove is planned for later this year.

The behemoths that helped crash the mortgage market (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) were already under heavy government “guidance,” but on Christmas Eve it worsened. The news was overshadowed by the next day’s attempted airline bombing, but it was noted in The Washington Post that, “The Christmas Eve announcement by the Treasury Department means that it can continue to run the companies [Fannie and Freddie], which were seized last year, as arms of the government for the rest of President Obama’s current term.”

You might call Obama a big-government control freak. Still, that doesn’t make him a socialist by textbook definition, since mostly he seeks “only” control rather than ownership. Because of that sneaky distinction, he’s a social democrat by definition. And because it’s sneaky, that could be worse than a socialist.

Ernest Istook served 14 years as a U.S. Congressman, and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.