President Obama had two things in mind when he invited himself to the cozy GOP in house confab in Baltimore. One was to tell the GOP to knock off the hits, digs, and its reflexive obstructionism to any and every one of his initiatives, the proposed tax cuts, pumping up small business, and big defense budgets. These are the same initiatives that are long standing GOP political mantras. McCain made them his sacred creed during the presidential campaign. If McCain had bagged the White House and pushed them the GOP would have wildly cheered them. Obama won and lightly borrowed them from him.
Obama had to clear the air on something else. And that's the notion that he is a closet socialist. Obama referenced his signature health care reform bill as the prime example of the initiative that GOP took the biggest pot shots at with the ludicrous rap that it's Bolshevik. The implication is that there is a sneaky socialist motive behind his whole agenda.
The Obama as Bolshevik card has been the ace in the deck GOP ultra conservatives, Rush Limbaugh and the pack of right side talk show jocks have dumped on the political playing table from the moment he tossed his hat in the presidential ring. It has had an amazing shelve life. There are millions of references, quotes, quips, comments, and notations on Google tarring Obama as a socialist. The irony is that then candidate Obama gave backdoor dignity to the silly label in October 2008 during a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina. Obama mocked the charge in a blast at McCain for strongly hinting there was a red taint to his agenda. Obama laughed it off saying, 'what's next, calling me a communist?' As events have shown, there are countless numbers who say it and believe it about him and his agenda.
But even if Obama had never pursed his lips and dignified the idiocy, and the GOP had played it on the up-and-up-and-up during the campaign and stuck to the standard attack on Democrats as pro-tax and spend, big government, and dovish on defense, Obama still would be branded a socialist. It's a loaded term that touches a raw nerve with most Americans who are in a fog on what socialism is and how it works as a system. To many a socialist is someone who is pro-union, pro-increased government spending on health and education programs, and pro-civil liberties and especially civil rights. This always drew fire from the right. During the 1960's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was routinely smeared as a communist and socialist.
The mildest criticism of big business and the wealthy insure a slap on of the socialist tag. The American economic sacred cow is that laissez faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. Politicians know that's it is a kiss of death to be seen as an advocate for tax and income fairness. That invites being plastered with the socialist tag.
GOP presidents and presidential candidates ritually play the 'tax and spend' card to brand their Democratic rivals as dangers to middle-class wage earners. This stokes fear that underneath the Democrat's supposed taxing and spending the rich will be hammered and the poor will be the beneficiaries. The wealth taking scare has worked in the past precisely because wealth and income iniquities are so great, and the notion that there's nothing wrong with those iniquities is so deeply entrenched in tax policy, philosophy and politics.
Any talk of putting more wealth into the hands of the non-wealthy in the way of tax cuts, a Social Security tax increase on upper income wage earners, capital gain increases, and closing tax shelter loopholes is plainly regarded as wealth redistribution downward. During the campaign, McCain grabbed at the formula that GOP contenders traditionally use and hit Obama with it.
The GOP has done the same with him in the White House. Despite public fury at Wall Street and the Big Banks for their greed and profiteering, if Obama pushes hard for real reform, tough regulations and strong consumer protections, the whispers and murmurs that he's a socialist will be heard even louder.
Obama cringed in horror at the absurd notion that he is a wait-in-the wings Marxist. But tossing the damaging political label at him is more than just a calculated political ploy to smear and taint Obama. It taps into the deeply held belief--and even fear--that Obama can and will actually mug the rich and by extension those who fantasize about being rich.
Obama has spent much time assuring the GOP and the public that nothing could be further from the truth. He stripped the public option from health care reform bill and rejected setting up government employment programs ala FDR from his stimulus bill. That didn't stop the talk of him as a socialist. His direct challenge to the GOP won't either. But it was something he had to do.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.