Two of every five Americans today say their country is evolving into a socialist state.
That finding, contained in a new nationwide poll, highlights a central debate in the 2012 election campaign and a major challenge for President Obama.
The "socialist state" survey is just one many indicators that Americans are worried that the federal government is growing too large – a feeling that works against Mr. Obama's reelection hopes.
In a Christian Science Monitor/Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll completed last week, 40 percent of respondents generally agreed with the statement: "The US is evolving into a socialist state." That outnumbered the 36 percent who disagreed. About one-quarter of respondents expressed a neutral view or said they were unsure.
The same poll asked other questions that took America's temperature on the size of government. A majority said it should not be the government's role to redistribute wealth, and a majority said they prefer "a smaller government providing less services."
Those results, taken together, indicate an opening for Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. He's trying to seize it.
"This old-style liberalism of bigger and bigger government and bigger and bigger taxes has got to end, and we will end it in November," Mr. Romney said at a campaign event in Colorado Tuesday.
Of course, there are plenty of voters who don't view Obama as a socialist. And anxiety about big government is just one of many feelings affecting voters, some of which cut in opposing directions. To cite just one example, Americans favor Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to dealing with health care, even though that's an area where Obama's policies represent a major expansion of government's financial and regulatory reach.
But with polls currently showing a tight race, the issue could be an important one in determining the winner come November.
According to the poll, some 30 percent of Americans "strongly agreed" with the view that the US is evolving toward socialism, while another 10 percent agreed somewhat. Some 50 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of independents held that view, compared with only 15 percent of Democrats. The poll didn't ask whether people thought evolving toward a socialist state is good or bad.
But is that view correct?
For his part, Obama rejects it. "No, I don’t believe the government is the answer to all our problems," Obama said last month in an economic speech in Ohio. "But I do share the belief of our first Republican president, from my home state – Abraham Lincoln – that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves."
He defended consumer-protection rules and government investments in things like infrastructure and education. He said higher taxes on the rich, not just spending cuts, should be used to reduce federal deficits. And he talked about a general consensus since World War II that "the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own."
Indeed, by the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of socialism as "collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods," Obama does not appear to be a socialist.
Obama didn't nationalize big banks during the financial crisis, for example. He says his health-care reforms will keep most Americans covered through private insurance. Even when the government did undertake recession-related rescues of private-sector automakers, it returned the firms to majority ownership by the private sector.
But the debate about the direction he is taking the country is a hot one.
An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, titled "America Already Is Europe," notes that government spending in Spain and in the US account for fairly similar shares of gross domestic product. Spain has been governed by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party for most of the past three decades. The author, Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said the US also looks like Europe in things such as the progressivity of its tax code and the regulatory burdens on business.
Equating that with Soviet-era Communism goes way too far, some say. On Tuesday, movie director Milos Forman, citing his experience living in Czechoslovakia, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that Obama's critics "falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism."
Yet the economic results might ultimately be similar, critics counter. Today's collectivism is "brought about more slowly, indirectly and imperfectly,... but the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same," with government control of the economy, the Investor's Business Daily editorialized, drawing on the words of 20th-century economist Friedrich Hayek in analyzing the new TIPP poll.
Still, public concern about government control doesn't appear to have ratcheted up much lately. The percentage seeing the US heading toward a socialist state was essentially the same in July as in March 2009, when the TIPP poll also asked the question. In August 2008, under President Bush and prior to the TARP bank bailouts, only 25 percent of Americans agreed with the "socialist state" view.