Steve Chapman

There are no disciples of small government in the Democratic Party, and Barack Obama fits right in. His economic program is based on the assumption that the economy is to the president what a marionette is to a puppeteer, requiring his direction and responding to his every wish.

Anyone partial to free markets, restrained government, fiscal discipline and light taxation approaches a Democratic nominee's economic platform with trepidation, expecting one fright after another. Obama does not disappoint.

He offers a long list of things the federal government should be doing to rearrange the nation's productive sector -- paying U.S. automakers to build fuel-efficient vehicles, confiscating allegedly excessive oil profits, and spending hundreds of billions to create jobs in environmental and infrastructure industries. Democrats have not given up their basic faith that the market, while useful, is always in need of Washington's whip hand.

In his windfall profits tax plan, Obama puts aside the troublesome fact that the last time we tried it, at the behest of President Carter, the tax yielded far less revenue than projected while reducing domestic energy production. And if Detroit didn't bother to invest in fuel-efficient cars when Honda and Toyota did, why should it get a $4 billion reward for its failure?

But saying a Democrat believes in big government is like saying that Chicago winters are cold -- true, but inadequate. Some winters are more bone-chilling than others, and some Democrats are worse than others. There are grounds for gloom with Obama, as there would be with anyone nominated by the party of FDR and LBJ. But there are some reasons to hope he will be less bad than most:

--He's liberal, but not that liberal. Contrary to the famous National Journal ranking that put him most leftward in the entire Senate, another study found he is really the 11th-most liberal. In the primaries, when Democratic candidates are under the most pressure to veer left, he insisted on hewing closer to the economic center than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards -- even when it exposed him to charges that he didn't support the holy grail of universal health care.

Obama did pander to the left's phobia about globalization by villainizing the North American Free Trade Agreement. But as soon as he had the nomination locked up, he confessed to Fortune magazine that his NAFTA rhetoric had been "overheated and amplified."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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