Here’s a thought: Maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama isn’t a socialist.

I know, if you’ve tuned into even a little bit of right-wing talk radio, or watched some Fox News shows over the past four years, this might come as a surprise.

Obama, in the imagination of so many of his right-wing opponents, is a debt-loving, big-spending, Wall Street-bashing enemy of the free market. A popular far-right documentary spun out a theory that Obama’s second term would finally reveal his plan to undermine American power. It treated this plot as a tragedy, but it’s actually a comedy.

After all, what’s the reality of Obama’s political agenda? The far right believes it’s socialism, sure. But the message we’ve been hearing from the mainstream media — that Obama is pushing a renewed brand of liberalism — is flagrantly false in many ways.


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Right after his second inaugural address, conservatives fumed that we were seeing the “real” Obama — a radical left-wing ideologue. The message from the “objective” media was not as strident, of course, but sounded similar notes. “Obama Offers Liberal Vision,” said The New York Times. He declared an “ambitious liberal agenda,” said CBS. After Obama’s State of the Union address, one veteran CNN pundit called it an “audacious speech,” one that saw Obama touting “old-fashioned liberalism” and big government.

But let’s consider reality for a moment. The highest-profile clash raging in Washington is over Obama’s selection of a Republican senator as his Pentagon chief. He’s nominated a Treasury secretary who was making big bucks on Wall Street at the height of the financial meltdown. His nominee to head up the Securities & Exchange Commission spent the past decade as a lawyer defending the banks she’ll now be keeping an eye on.

If Obama is intent on carrying out his secret socialist agenda — or even a muscular liberal one — he has a funny way of showing it.

But what about all that big government spending? If you listen to the White House, they’re often proudest of the spending cuts they’ve embraced. Yes, government spending spiked due to the economic catastrophe that began in 2008, but since then it’s been falling, as a share of the economy and relative to the size of the population. Federal government spending is rising at the slowest pace since the Eisenhower administration.

To many of Obama’s critics on the left, the government should be spending more to help boost employment because cutting government spending just makes things worse. (This is precisely what is happening across Europe.)

What’s Obama’s bold liberal vision we hear about in the papers? It’s not as daring as the papers and the pundits would have you think. There’s a middle-of-the-road proposal on immigration. His rhetoric on climate change is overshadowed by the way he cheers for natural gas fracking. Yes, Obama is proposing a modest increase in the minimum wage to $9 per hour. But that’s actually 50 cents lower than the proposal he made 5 years ago.

So why all the media misperceptions? One explanation is that ultra-conservatives have whipped their powerful media machine into a frenzy over Obama’s supposed radicalism. That message spills over into the larger media discussion, where “Obama is some kind of socialist” gets to be one side of a falsely “balanced” two-sided debate.

Another explanation: A truly progressive agenda to address the problems America faces right now — such as taxing Wall Street speculation, embracing a serious climate policy, and supporting vigorous jobs programs — would threaten the upper-crust interests that corporate media and the political system serve to protect.

Casting Obama’s mostly middle-of-the-road vision as unusually progressive helps to narrow the political debate. It’s keeping many truly progressive ideas off the table.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the activism director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
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