If you want to remember how people used to talk about Barack Obama, go back to a TV clip from Oct. 23, 2008. Joe Biden sat gamely for a satellite interview with Barbara West, a local news anchor in Orlando, Fla. She wanted to get to the bottom of what Obama meant when he told sometime-plumber Joe Wurzelbacher that everyone benefits when you "spread the wealth around."
"You may recognize this famous quote," said West. " 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.' That's from Karl Marx. How is Sen. Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?
Biden squinted, looking for Ashton Kutcher out of the corner of his eye. "Are you joking? Is this a joke?
"Is that a real question?"
"That's a question."
Later, West asked Biden what he'd "say to the people who are concerned that Barack Obama will want to turn America into a socialist county, much like Sweden." Days away from being elected vice president, Biden snorted that he didn't "know anyone who thinks that, apart from the far right wing of the Republican Party." Interview over. Future interviews with West, canceled.
Two years on, how quaint does this sound? The people convinced that Obama wants to turn America into a socialist country now include the Republicans who will soon run the House of Representatives, and they did not shy away from saying this in their campaigns. At this point, a conservative who calls Obama a socialist is risking a primary challenge from the right; what is he, too wimpy to call the guy a fascist?
Maybe this is why Stanley Kurtz's political biography of Obama, Radical-in-Chief, has been received with such a shrug. He's given us a dense analysis of Obama and "the untold story of American Socialism," backed up by copious primary sources listed in 72 pages of endnotes. All that research meant that the book was beat to the "Why Conservatives Should Fear Obama" shelf by four Glenn Beck books (one of them a novel); No. 1 New York Times best-sellers by Michelle Malkin, David Limbaugh, and Dick Morris; and documentaries like Generation Zero—no shortage of material making the Obama-as-Swedenizing-strongman case. The discriminating reader who wants the "untold story" about Obama has already picked up The Manchurian Presidentor Dinesh D'Souza's fast-selling screed that sees an aspiring African strongman in the White House.
And this is sort of a shame. Kurtz actually hit the trail, dug into the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the papers of Harold Washington, and the Chicago Defender, and apparently read every word written by the Hyde Park intelligentsia and politicos of the 1980s and '90s to find out just how much the young Barack Obama palled around with socialists. The answer: more than Obama has admitted. The score gets settled between Kurtz and Obama's fact-checking site, FightTheSmears, which originally called these stories crazy. Obama didn't really keep his distance from ACORN before it became politically toxic in the late aughts, and Project Vote, the registration drive he ran in 1992, definitely did some work with ACORN. Obama worked with Bill Ayers and Bill's less-terrorism-inclined brother John. He even attended socialist conferences in New York.
OK, the last fact isn't actually a Kurtz discovery. In Dreams From My Father, Obama mentions "socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union." In 2007 and 2008, when the "Marxist Obama" attack was laughed out of any room bigger than an Orlando TV studio, reporters didn't make much of this. Kurtz makes so much of it that he attempts to figure out exactly which conferences Obama went to, such as the 1983 Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference, and to mind-meld with the 22-year-old student at pivotal times to figure out why, later, he became a community organizer. Based on the panels he might have gone to, Kurtz determines which ideas planted themselves in Obama's head, and why.
"Although it seems unlikely that Obama would have passed up the entire Race & Class in Marxism panel," writes Kurtz, "it's easy to imagine him dashing over to catch [John] Conyers's talk and then moving back to the session on race and class." There's a catch, of course. "Obviously, we can't know Obama's movements in detail. The point is that the themes we're discussing were conference-wide."
All of Kurtz's research is presented this way, as excavations from primary sources that tell us who wrote what articles and what happened at various meetings in the history of American socialism. Once his case is made, he explains how close Obama was to it all. It's fascinating, but it doesn't really prove what Kurtz wants it to prove.
His first problem is that so much of his case depends on the power of that magic word socialism. Kurtz benefits from the fact that it causes a full-body freak-out among American voters and politicians, with images of gulags, bread lines, and Red Dawn. (There's a Red Dawn remake coming soon in which the Cuban and Russian soldiers are replaced by Chinese ones, so the magic's not fading.) And now that no one looks at you funny for calling a Democrat a "socialist," a conservative can win a debate by saying he wants to follow the Constitution while his opponent wants to follow Marx. The December 2010 unemployment rate is proof that Marx is wrong and Madison is right. Debate over.
But it isn't so simple. You can oppose a policy because you're a radical who wants to bring down the government. You can also oppose a policy because it's rotten. Kurtz calls out one socialist group for "one of the first campaigns against bank 'red-lining,' paving the way for ACORN's fateful attack on the mortgage industry decades later." Yes, socialists were among the opponents of a policy introduced by the Federal Housing Administration that discouraged loans and investment to minority neighborhoods. They were right about it.
Later, Kurtz wonders "how remarkable would it be if ACORN did in fact have a significant role in precipitating [the financial] crisis." He argues that it does, because ACORN lobbied Congress and the Clinton administration to put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the subprime business, and because Columbia university sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward once argued that activists could overwhelm the state by over-registering people for welfare benefits—put it together, and you have the financial crisis, or a version of it that turns the makers of CDOs into bystanders.
This problem comes up again and again. If you look for socialism in Obama's past, you can find it; and if you look for it in his presidency, everything seems like a hammer and sickle. But does this give us a deeper understanding of what the Democrats are up to? Or is socialism a word that, applied to Democrats, makes their policies less popular?
Kurtz sees socialism as the only way to explain Obama's "insistence on pressing an ambitious program of health-care reform during an economic downturn." A simpler explanation could be that he's a liberal Democrat, and liberal Democrats have been trying to do what he did on health care for half a century. Pointing out that some of their ideas came from socialists, and locating the wellsprings of those ideas, is useful history. It helps explain where some of the concepts adopted by liberals come from. What it doesn't explain is how those liberals end up running the place once they're in power.
And that sets up the second problem with Kurtz's book. Since losing the House of Representatives, President Obama has negotiated with Republicans to give them much of what they wanted on tax cuts. A man trained by the best socialists Chicago had to offer has just agreed to let the estate tax sink to its lowest-ever permanent rate. According to Politico's Robert Kuttner, Obama is ready to take a step that was telegraphed when he set up the debt commission and start cutting back Social Security. There's a reason why Beck and the gang focus on Obama's more obscure appointees than on his big-ticket items: The hard left isn't at all satisfied with the big-ticket items. But Kurtz argues that "the best way to understand the president's policies is to see them as a series of steps designed to slowly but surely move the country closer to a socialist ideal."
I've got another theory about Barack Obama. He's a liberal, but he knows who he needs to impress and what they care about. He figured out early on what soothed Hyde Park socialists, and later he figured out how to win over Springfield and Washington Republicans. He's not an unblinking, unrepentant socialist. He's a liberal political hack. He's just been good at knowing how much everyone else likes to obsess over labels.