Steve Chapman

But it was George W. Bush, a conservative hero, who tossed a federal lifeline to financial institutions and automakers, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He also signed the 2008 stimulus package, which was billed as a tax cut but really was nothing more than a handout of $168 billion the government didn't have.

Obama did take over GM after it went bankrupt, but Summers said in a speech last summer that "we will work to transfer government holdings into private hands as soon as practicable." He declared, "Only if government is no longer a major presence in any of the companies well before a decade from now will it have fully succeeded" -- only, that is, if it moves away from socialism.

It's easy to forget, Goolsbee told me, that the stimulus originated not from an ideological zeal to abolish capitalism but the perceived need to avert a depression. The point, he stresses, was to revive the economic activity that the private sector depends on -- a policy in the tradition of legendary economist John Maynard Keynes.

Keynesianism, whatever its flaws, is not an indicator of socialist convictions. It is accepted to one degree or another not only by liberal economists but by many conservative ones.

Critics of the public insurance option, which include me, shouldn't exaggerate its likely importance. One notable feature of Obama's approach to health care is that it retains our system of private insurance. An authentic socialist would, at the very least, support a universal system of government-provided insurance.

Of course, some people say Obama's real goal is to use a government-run plan to destroy private insurers, paving the way for a Canadian-style system. But if that's true, why has he indicated he could give up the public option to get other reforms passed?

In the end, Obama is more likely to benefit than suffer from this smear. The critics hope to persuade the public that he is a dangerous extremist far removed from the desires of the average person. When conservatives like Mike Huckabee claim that "Lenin and Stalin would love" the administration's policies, though, they sound like 3-year-olds crying about monsters under the bed.

There is plenty to oppose in what Obama wants to do. But can we not be stupid about it?

Steve Chapman

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

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