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Scot Lehigh

Obama a socialist? Not quite

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 11, 2009
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OF ALL THE inane accusations about President Obama, the silliest has to be this: The president is a socialist.

Obama's plans are "one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment," asserts House minority leader John Boehner. He's "the world's best salesman of socialism," says Republican Senator Jim DeMint.

"Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff," declares Mike Huckabee. Sean Hannity derides his agenda as "socialism you can believe in." Obama is "a radical communist," warns kooky Alan Keyes.

"Epithets are substituting for thinking," observes Marc Landy, professor of political science at Boston College.

Are they ever.

That has long been the case across vast realms of conservative talk radio, of course. I recently heard one of our local luminaries who regularly accuses Obama of Marxism offering a similar sort of indispensable insight on another critical issue: Michelle Obama's appearance during her husband's speech to Congress. The first lady's face resembled that of a camel, while her body looked like the Liberty Bell wrapped in purple, said WTKK's Jay Severin, who, hilariously, fancies himself a political polymath leading a rarefied radio discussion. (Severin imagines any number of things about himself that are at considerable variance with the truth.)

So let's examine the matter. One defining aspect of socialism is state ownership, control, or direction of the economy. Think of Hugo Chavez nationalizing steel, cement, power, and telecommunications firms in Venezuela, and assuming control over foreign oil projects. Or of Francois Mitterrand nationalizing six of France's largest industrial conglomerates, plus dozens of the country's largest banks and investment houses, during his presidency.

By contrast, despite the excuse of a crisis, Obama has resisted calls from both left and right to temporarily nationalize teetering banks. Similarly, if Obama were a socialist, crypto or otherwise, he would surely be proposing government-run healthcare, rather than an expansion that builds upon our current hybrid model.

Nor does his agenda compare to the democratic socialism of countries like Denmark or Sweden, which have high taxation across a wide swath of the population to fund a generous system of social benefits.

"What Obama even in his wildest moments is proposing is way short of that," notes Landy.

What's really causing conservative conniptions is that Obama wants to tax top earners more and spend some of that revenue on benefits - healthcare, education, tax cuts, etc. - for others. His mortgage plan has drawn similar ire.

But if he prevails, the two top income tax rates - 36 and 39.6 percent - would still be well below those the country had for much of the last six decades. The top rates were 90 percent or more from the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s. They remained above 65 percent from the mid-1960s until Ronald Reagan's presidency, when they were first cut to the 48 to 50 percent range and later to 28 percent with a "bubble" bracket that taxed some income at 33 percent.

Taxes rose under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. During Clinton's presidency, the top rates were set at 36 and 39.6 percent. George W. Bush's tax cuts reduced those rates to 33 and 35 percent. When those tax cuts expire, Obama favors letting the top rates revert to 36 and 39.6 percent.

That historical perspective gives the lie to the notion that the president wants to impose an unprecedented level of taxation. Add in his other revenue-raisers, and he would clearly be more progressive than Clinton, but well within the tradition of FDR and LBJ.

It's ambitious liberalism, without a doubt. But socialism, with all that conjures up? Hardly.

"For upper-income taxpayers, marginal tax rates on ordinary income would return to Clinton-era levels," says Rosanne Altshuler, co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "Taxes on capital gains would be lower or the same as the top capital gains rate under Ronald Reagan, while taxes on dividends would be significantly lower than under Reagan."

So why do Obama's ideologicial opponents persist in the socialist canard?

Simple: It's far easier to gull people with politically freighted terms than it is to argue actual facts.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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