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Obama a socialist? Many scoff, but claim persists

Monday - 6/4/2012, 1:48pm  ET

By DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - When President Barack Obama's re-election campaign unveiled its new slogan, some conservative critics were quick to pounce.

"Forward," they asserted, is a word long associated with Europe's radical left. Its choice reaffirmed their contention that Obama is, to some degree or other, a socialist _ a claim that surfaced early in the 2008 campaign and has persisted ever since, fueling a lively industry of bumper stickers and books..

"New Obama slogan has long ties to Marxism, socialism," read a headline in The Washington Times. A column by Russian immigrant Svetlana Kunin, for Investor's Business Daily, said Obama seeks to move America forward to "total government involvement in people's lives."

This is far from a new phenomenon _ the use of "socialist" as a political epithet in the U.S. dates back to pre-Civil War days when abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley was branded a socialist by some pro-slavery adversaries. In the 20th century, many elements of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal _ including Social Security _ were denounced as socialist. So was Medicare when it was created in the 1960s.

But to many historians and political scientists _ and to actual socialists as well _ the persistent claim that Obama is a socialist lacks credence.

He's widely seen as a pragmatist within the Democratic Party mainstream who's had ample success raising campaign funds from wealthy Wall Street capitalists. Even some of his strongest critics acknowledge that his administration hasn't sought one of the classic forms of socialism _ government control of the nation's means of production.

Terence Ball, a political scientist at Arizona State University, said "socialist' has gained currency as an anti-Obama slur because "the `L' word (liberal) has lost it shock value."

"I grow weary of Obama and the Democrats being called socialist," said Ball, who has written about ideologies. "If you talk to any real socialist, they disown them very, very quickly."

Full-fledged U.S. socialists are relatively scarce these days _ three socialist-oriented presidential candidates received about 21,000 votes among them in 2008. And current socialist leaders don't share the right-wing view that Obama is a fellow traveler.

"It makes absolutely no sense," said Greg Pason, national secretary of the Socialist Party USA. Obama's health care overhaul "is anything but socialist. It's bailing out for-profit companies."

Yet Pason has been pleased by the "socialist" rhetoric.

"We've had an opportunity to talk to people, and that's been a blessing," he said. "People have actually researched socialist organizations."

One tidbit they might learn: The Pledge of Allegiance _ the epitome of American patriotism _ was written in 1892 by a socialist clergyman, Francis Bellamy.

When the 2012 Republican presidential campaign was still competitive, three of the leading candidates _ Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann _ depicted Obama as a socialist. Mitt Romney, the eventual winner, declined to go that far.

"I don't use the word `socialist,' or I haven't so far," Romney told CNN in an interview last year. "But I do agree that the president's approach is government-heavy, government-intensive, and it's not working."

In one of the GOP debates, Romney asserted that Obama "takes his political inspiration from Europe, from the socialist-democrats in Europe."

Radio host Rush Limbaugh was among several conservatives who chided Romney for his reluctance to call Obama a socialist outright.

"You know, I keep forgetting, the fact that Obama is black, is why we can't call him a socialist," Limbaugh said on one of his shows. "That had slipped my mind because when I look at Obama, I don't see black. I see a socialist. I see a Marxist."

A slew of books have been written by conservative authors trying to out Obama as socialist. Among the more ambitious, in terms of research, was "Radical in Chief" by Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank. Delving into Obama's years as a student and a community organizer, Kurtz contended that Obama is part of a coterie of "stealth socialists."

"Over the long term, Obama's plans are designed to ensnare the country in a new socialism, a stealth socialism that masquerades as a traditional sense of fair play, a soft but pernicious socialism similar to that currently strangling the economies of Europe," Kurtz wrote.

In much of today's world, socialism lacks the contentious overtones that it has in America.

The new French president, Francois Hollande, is a Socialist, and most of Western Europe adheres to socialist-style policies that endure under a variety of governing parties.

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