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« Congress Passes Continuing Resolution | Blog Home Page | Strategy Memo: Political Science »

Is Obama A Socialist? He Says No

The New York Times has posted a transcript of its interview with President Obama this week. The session aboard Air Force One covered a wide range of topics, but there was only one that required a follow-up conversation after: whether the president was a "socialist," as has been suggested.

Obama first responded by saying: "You know, let's take a look at the budget -- the answer would be no."

He repeated his contention that his budget would reduce non-discretionary spending "to the lowest levels in decades," as a percentage of GDP.

"So if you look at our budget, what you have is a very disciplined, fiscally responsible budget, along with an effort to deal with some very serious problems that have been put off for a very long time," he said.

Asked if he was more liberal than he suggested during the campaign, Obama said "it would be hard to argue" that he is.

"If you look at spending, what we said during the campaign was, is that we were going to raise taxes on the top five percent. That's what our budget does. We said that we'd give a tax cut to 95 percent of working Americans. That's exactly what we have done. That's the right thing to do," he said. "It provides relief to families that basically saw no growth in wages and incomes over the last decade. It asks for a little bit more for people like myself who benefited greatly over the last decade and took a disproportionate share of a growing economy. I actually don't think that anybody who examines our budget can come away with the conclusion that somehow this is a - that this is in any way different than what we proposed during the campaign."

So the president was asked, if he does not consider himself socialist, what is he? Liberal? Progressive?

"I'm not going to engage in that," he said.

The interview ended as Air Force One landed. But the Times notes that Obama called to follow up later, saying, "It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question." He then responded with some pointed criticisms of his predecessor.

"I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement - the prescription drug plan without a source of funding. And so I think it's important just to note when you start hearing folks through these words around that we've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can't say the same," he said.

The full interview is available here. The entire section about the "socialist" question is after the jump.

Q. The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested? A. You know, let's take a look at the budget - the answer would be no.

Q. Is there anything wrong with saying yes?

A. Let's just take a look at what we've done. We've essentially said that, number one, we're going to reduce non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest levels in decades. So that part of the budget that doesn't include entitlements and doesn't include defense - that we have the most control over - we're actually setting on a downward trajectory in terms of percentage of G.D.P. So we're making more tough choices in terms of eliminating programs and cutting back on spending than any administration has done in a very long time. We're making some very tough choices.

What we have done is in a couple of critical areas that we have put off action for a very long time, decided that now is the time to ask. One is on health care. As you heard in the health care summit yesterday, there is uniform belief that the status quo is broken and if we don't do anything, we will be in a much worse place, both fiscally as well as in terms of what's happening to families and businesses than if we did something.

The second area is on energy, which we've been talking about for decades. Now, in each of those cases, what we've said is, on our watch, we're going to solve problems that have weakened this economy for a generation. And it's going to be hard and it's going to require some costs. But if you look on the revenue side what we're proposing, what we're looking at is essentially to go back to the tax rates that existed during the 1990s when, as I recall, rich people were doing very well. In fact everybody was doing very well. We have proposed a cap and trade system, which could create some additional costs, but the vast majority of that we want to give back in the form of tax breaks to the 95 percent of working families.

So if you look at our budget, what you have is a very disciplined, fiscally responsible budget, along with an effort to deal with some very serious problems that have been put off for a very long time. And that I think is exactly what I proposed during the campaign. We are following through on every commitment that we've made, and that's what I think is ultimately going to get our economy back on track.

Q. So to people who suggested that you are more liberal than you suggested on the campaign, you say, what?

A. I think it would be hard to argue, Jeff. We have delivered on every promise that we've made so far. We said that we would end the war in Iraq and we've put forward a responsible plan.

Q. In terms of spending.

A. Oh, in terms of spending. Well, if you look at spending, what we said during the campaign was, is that we were going to raise taxes on the top five percent. That's what our budget does. We said that we'd give a tax cut to 95 percent of working Americans. That's exactly what we have done. That's the right thing to do. It provides relief to families that basically saw no growth in wages and incomes over the last decade. It asks for a little bit more for people like myself who benefited greatly over the last decade and took a disproportionate share of a growing economy. I actually don't think that anybody who examines our budget can come away with the conclusion that somehow this is a - that this is in any way different than what we proposed during the campaign.

But more to the point, it is what's needed in order to put this economy on a more stable footing. One of the problems that we've had is that we have put off big problems again and again and again and again. And as I've said in my speech to the joint session of Congress, at some point there is a day of reckoning. Well, that day of reckoning has come.

What I'm refusing to do and what I've instructed my staff that we will not do is to try to kick the can down the road, to try to paper over problems, try to use gimmicks on budgets, try to pretend that health care is not an issue, to continue with a situation where we are exporting - importing - more and more oil from the middle east, continuing with a situation in which average working families are seeing their wages flat line. At some point, we've got to take on these problems.

Q. Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you're not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?

A. No, I'm not going to engage in that.

Here's the followup:

At 2:30 p.m., President Obama called The New York Times, saying he wanted to clarify a point from the interview. Here is a transcript of that brief call:

President Obama: Just one thing I was thinking about as I was getting on the copter. It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question. I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement - the prescription drug plan without a source of funding. And so I think it's important just to note when you start hearing folks through these words around that we've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can't say the same.

Q. So who's watch are we talking about here?

A. Well, I just think it's clear by the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. And the thing I constantly try to emphasize to people if that coming in, the market was doing fine, nobody would be happier than me to stay out of it. I have more than enough to do without having to worry the financial system. The fact that we've had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.

I think that covers it.