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Ask the card-carrying socialists: Is Obama one of them?

By John Blake, CNN
  • Obama has been called a socialist but what do actual socialists say?
  • Socialist leader: Obama isn't even a liberal
  • Socialists say many Americans already accept socialism
  • Tea Party member: Obama wants to spread the wealth

(CNN) -- Billy Wharton should be happy.

"Socialized health care" is on its way. The "socialist agenda" is taking over America. And best of all, Barack Obama, a "committed socialist ideologue," is in the Oval Office.

But Wharton, co-chair of the Socialist Party USA, sees no reason to celebrate. He's seen people with bumper stickers and placards that call Obama a socialist, and he has a message for them: Obama isn't a socialist. He's not even a liberal.

"We didn't see a great victory with the election of Barack Obama," Wharton says, " and we certainly didn't see our agenda move from the streets to the White House."

Are many Americans secret socialists?

Obama's opponents have long described him as a socialist. But what do actual socialists think about Obama? Not much, says Wharton.

"He's the president whose main goal is to protect the wealth of the richest 5 percent of Americans."

He and others say the assertion that Obama is a socialist is absurd.

"It makes no rational sense. It clearly means that people don't understand what socialism is."

Definitions of socialism vary, but most socialists believe workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own or control them.

Not all socialists, though, want to confiscate personal property. Democratic Socialists are more interested in protecting ordinary people from unregulated capitalism through regulation and progressive taxation.

Some of the socialist agenda is already part of American life, according to Wharton and others.

Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits -- all reflect socialistic values, says Van Gosse, an associate professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who has researched socialist movements in the United States and Latin America.

The widely accepted notions of public education and Pell Grants for college students are socialistic in origin, Gosse says. They fit well with the socialistic premise that government should provide basic security from the cradle to the grave to all of its citizens, he says.

"We assert that education should not be left up to the private market -- where those who can pay, get it and those who can't, don't get it," Gosse says. "It's a common good and in that sense it is a socialistic institution even if the U.S. remains a capitalist nation."

Why socialists hate Obama's health care bill

Those who call Obama a socialist, though, point to his policies. Big on their hit list: "Obamacare," which they call "socialized medicine."

It makes no rational sense. It clearly means that people don't understand what socialism is.
--Billy Wharton, socialist leader

Socialists scoff at the notion. They don't applaud the passage of the recent health care bill either. They wanted a national "single-payer" health insurance plan with a government option. The bill that Obama championed didn't have any of those features.

Wharton said the new health care bill only strengthens private health insurance companies. They get 32 million new customers and no incentive to change -- something a socialist wouldn't accept.

"Most of it was authored by the health care industry," Wharton says. "I call it the corporate restructuring of health care."

Other critics point to Obama's Wall Street bailout -- which actually had its roots in the Bush administration. Critics say it's socialistic for government to assume control of private industry.

Frank Llewellyn, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, says the bailout had nothing to do with socialism.

Llewellyn says a socialist leader would have at least nationalized some of the troubled banks.

"He gave them [the banks] too much with no strings attached," Llewellyn says. "Banks that were too big to fail are bigger, and they can still fail."

How about Obama's bailout of the Detroit auto industry? During the bailout, the federal government assumed partial ownership of General Motors.

"It's not socialism," Llewellyn says. "The mere fact that the government owns something or has a stake in it, doesn't make it socialist. If that was true, you would say that we have a socialist army. The government owns the army."

Defining socialism is complex, Llewellyn says, but it starts with a simple goal: Socialists want to introduce democratic features into the economy to reduce inequality.

The economy has "to be run for the overall benefit of the entire population, not for the benefits of a very few people."

By that measure, Obama's economic policies are not socialist, he says.

"He's trying to save capitalism from itself rather than a radical trying to change into a new system," Llewellyn says.

This kind of name-calling is not new. Civil rights demonstrators and the politicians who passed Medicare were also called socialists and communists, Llewellyn says.

"Every time an expansion of the public's right has been put forward, Republicans have called it extreme, communistic and socialistic. It's a repeated tactic because they can't defeat the idea."

A Tea Party member explains why Obama is a socialist

Those arguments don't sway Conrad Quagliaroli, a Tea Party member who says Obama is a socialist.

He says that Obama's voting record as a senator was more to the left than the U.S. Senate's sole socialist, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

He says Obama's association with radicals and his pledge to "spread the wealth" seal his socialistic credentials.

"The role of government is to provide a safe environment to conduct business, not to take from one and give to the other," says Quagliaroli, a financial planner who lives in Woodstock, Georgia.

Quagliaroli was not persuaded by the arguments of other socialist leaders who reject the idea that Obama is a socialist.

"He's just not socialist enough for them."

Quagliaroli says he doesn't like socialism because it breeds mediocrity and encourages people to "live on the dole." Capitalism "breeds excellence" because it encourages initiative, he says.

The role of the government is to provide a safe environment to conduct business, not to take from one and give to the other.
--Conrad Quagliaroli, Tea Party member

Does that mean that Quagliaroli will refuse his Social Security checks, a government program that has been described as socialistic, and which he opposes?

Not necessarily, says Quagliaroli. He says he'll accept his Social Security checks for two reasons.

"They confiscated it from me to begin with, and the more money they give me, the less they'll have to waste," he says. "I can spend it better than they can. I don't pay $500 for a hammer."

The argument over Obama's ideology may rage on, but at least one socialist says another prominent politician ought to be inserted into the debate.

Llewellyn, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, says he was struck by one player in the 2008 presidential elections who displayed more socialistic leanings than Obama.

This candidate raised taxes on the big oil companies, and sent the revenue to the people.

If you want to learn something about spreading the wealth, Llewellyn says, don't look to Obama.

"To be honest, the most socialist candidate in the 2008 election was Sarah Palin."