The New York Times ran a front-page story Sunday based on an interview with Barack Obama aboard Air Force One, focusing on Afghanistan and the economy.
What caught my attention was a rather pointless and depressing sidebar by Jeff Zeleny that recounted how Obama called back after the interview to expand on his response to a question about whether his economic policies make him a socialist:
Less than 90 minutes after Air Force One landed, the telephone rang. President Obama was on the line, wanting to add one more point to a response he gave during an interview with The New York Times.
On a flight from Ohio to Washington on Friday, Mr. Obama was asked whether his domestic policies suggested that he was a socialist, as some conservatives have implied.
“The answer would be no,” he said, laughing for a moment before defending his administration for “making some very tough choices” on the budget.
As the interview progressed, Mr. Obama never returned to the question. When he called, he said he had been thinking about it as he boarded the helicopter taking him back to the White House.
“It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question,” Mr. Obama said from the Oval Office.
Wow. It's a sign of how much the discussion of the economy has deteriorated that the Times is asking Obama whether spending money to stimulate the economy (Keynesian economics) in the face of the largest economic crisis in decades and moving to prevent the failure of major financial institutions (policies that are backed by pretty much everyone, expect for the nuttiest right-wingers) amount to socialism.
Here's the question as it was asked, according to the transcript: "The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?"
Obama brushed off the query, saying the "the answer would be no." The Times followed up with: "Is there anything wrong with saying yes?"
On the one hand, you could say the Times is giving Obama an opportunity to respond to his critics. But if that had been the case, and if the reporters truly understood that these charges of socialism are absurd, you'd think the question would have read more like: Some of your conservative critics are saying your economic policies are 'socialist.' How would you respond to that charge? And the follow-up question, rather than implying that there's nothing wrong with socialism, instead reads as though the reporter were attempting to coax a confession from the president. Look, you were under a lot of pressure. Mistakes happen. Why don't you just tell us why you pushed that hooker off the roof?
Next, after a couple questions about whether Obama's spending indicates he's more liberal than he made himself out to be on the campaign trail, there was this follow-up: "Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you’re not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?"
You know, rather than ask Obama whether he's a socialist, the Times could have just Googled "socialism," gone to the Wikipedia page and learned that socialism is actually the ownership of the means of production, not massive government spending, because by that definition George W. Bush would be a socialist.
And the only policy in front of Obama right now that could actually be deemed "socialist," the temporary nationalization of zombie banks, is one that he is steadfastly refusing to consider. Beyond which, temporary nationalization is in fact the correct response to this crisis; the idea that it's tantamount to socialism is inane; it's gotten support from high-ranking Republicans, including Sen. Lindsay Graham; and Obama's stubborn and seemingly irrational rejection of it threatens to undermine his entire presidency, given the potentially severe economic consequences.
If I were a Times editor, I would have been embarrassed by this whole exchange and sought to bury it. This is a news story by The New York Times, after all, not a segment on "Fox and Friends."
Instead, we get an inside baseball-style piece about the president calling a reporter back because, having ignored a ridiculous question about whether he's socialist, he later realized that the reporters were dead serious and he'd better give them a fuller response, lest they cast his brush-off in a negative light.
Anyway, all this socialism talk is driving me insane and I have a long rant building up inside me, but that'll have to wait a bit until I have some time to think it through and write it out.
(Update: Since writing this post this morning, I've found a few other people who've commented on the Times piece, including Joan Walsh and Eric Boehlert. Walsh linked to a post by Greg Sargent, who got a comment from one of the Times reporters about why they asked the question. Both Walsh and Sargent are more sympathetic to the Times than I. Peter Baker's post-facto justification for asking the initial question sounds like a lot of high-minded BS, frankly, and I wonder why I didn't see any glimmers of this thoughtfulness in the actual questions that were asked.
Here's the heart of Baker's response: "The point is not the label, per se, but the question of whether the times and the solutions under consideration represent some sort of paradigm shift in our national thinking about the role of government in society."
First of all, anytime I see the words "per se" and "paradigm shift" in the same sentence, my bullshit sirens start shrieking. Secondly, I would argue that, contrary to Baker's spin, "the label" was precisely the point. Why else would they have asked him: "Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you’re not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?" Give me a break.)