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The Insiders
Posted at 10:12 AM ET, 07/19/2012

Today, the epithet is socialist

Once upon a time, conservatives attacked moderates and liberals as communists; today, the epitaph epithet is socialist.

Many Republicans charge that Barack Obama has such an extreme antipathy for business that his governing philosophy belongs better to Sweden. This puzzles many on the left who believe Barack Obama's key failure has been in coddling large business interests. There is an old saying in politics that when both the right and the left are attacking you, you must getting something right.

But what would a dispassionate analysis of President Obama's record on business reveal about his attitude toward free enterprise? I'll give it a try. I think it is a fair criticism that the president lacked an intuitive feel for business when he entered the White House and failed to compensate for that on his staff. As much as anything, poor outreach and dialogue, plus some occasional anti-business rhetoric from his staff set much of the business community on edge.

But in his actual governmental decisions, Obama clearly accepted the capitalist status quo. His stimulus bill was full of small business tax breaks and government subsidies to business. His health-care strategy quickly caved on the single-payer option and left the the private health insurance system as the vehicle for delivery of benefits and services. It even enlisted the help of the pharmaceutical industry to pass the bill by not considering price controls or reimportation. His failed cap-and-trade bill was larded with corporate welfare to buy the support or mute the opposition of various industries, and, of course, the president broke his promise and left the Bush tax cuts in place. Hardly the approach of a socialist.

My opinion is that Obama's initial lack of familiarity with business had the ironic effect of making him less effective in cajoling business to help him when there was common ground and to blunt their opposition when his policies collided with their interests. Corporate interests are neither inherently good nor evil; they are powerful interests that can either work for or against a president. But the worlds of finance and manufacturing and private investment were unfamiliar to Obama, and the president had none of his famous "touch" or mastery here.

One hopes that Barack Obama has learned in his first term to more skillfully manipulate business in the public interest. John Kennedy certainly did. In 1962, U.S. steelmakers decided to raise prices despite pressure from the president not to do so and an agreement by the unions to forgo wage increases. The president realized he was being played and exploded: "My father always told me businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed him until now."

The president went on television and shamed the steel industry, saying, "Some time ago, I asked each American to consider what he would do for his country, and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours, we had their answer."

The companies backed down but were outraged. "This is a sustained attack on the free enterprise system: it may be all-out war," said one company executive. "A planned economy, directed from Washington, is what Mr. Kennedy now has in mind."

So you see we've had communists, er, I mean socialists in our midst for a long time.

By  |  10:12 AM ET, 07/19/2012

 
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