Zing! Times Asks Obama: "Are You a Socialist?"

Immediately afterhis big interview with the Times that dominated the front of Sunday's paper, President Obama took issue with one of the questions from the Times regarding whether or not he was a socialist. The Times had asked Obama:

The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?

Obama responded:

You know, let's take a look at the budget - the answer would be no.

Later, Obama called the Times to expound further, chiding the Times for asking the question, Jeff Zeleny reported in a sidebar, "The President Is on the Line To Follow Up on an Answer."

Less than 90 minutes after Air Force One landed, the telephone rang. President Obama was on the line, wanting to add one more point to a response he gave during an interview with The New York Times.

On a flight from Ohio to Washington on Friday, Mr. Obama was asked whether his domestic policies suggested that he was a socialist, as some conservatives have implied.

"The answer would be no," he said, laughing for a moment before defending his administration for "making some very tough choices" on the budget.

As the interview progressed, Mr. Obama never returned to the question. When he called, he said he had been thinking about it as he boarded the helicopter taking him back to the White House.

"It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question," Mr. Obama said from the Oval Office.

Zeleny laid out the groundwork for the question:

But his budget plan prompted criticism suggesting that he was intent on undoing the dominance of conservative ideas that started under Ronald Reagan, and that he had revealed himself as a free-spending liberal.

Indeed,the Times itself made the point, favorably, in a column by David Leonhardt on the February 27 front page:

The budget that President Obama proposed on Thursday is nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters.

Liberal blogger Greg Sargent at the Plum Line blog wondered what the Times was thinking when it asked Obama if he was a socialist and noted the paper was taking fire from the left for it. Sargent gota tart response from Times reporter Peter Baker (for background, the Plum Line is hosted on whorunsgov.com, aproduct of the Washington Post, which owns Newsweek). Sargent:

I emailed a Times political editor to ask what the rationale behind the question was and got back the following from Baker, the Times reporter:

The goal of the question was to get at the same issue your sister publication, Newsweek, was addressing with its recent cover story, "We Are All Socialists Now."

The point is not the label, per se, but the question of whether the times and the solutions under consideration represent some sort of paradigm shift in our national thinking about the role of government in society. In a moment of taxpayer bank bailouts and shifting tax burden proposals and exploding deficits and expansive health care and energy plans, what is the future of American-style capitalism?

We were also interested in exploring how a new president defines his political philosophy, something that has been the subject of intense debate. We wanted to draw him out on all of that and I think his answers, both in the interview itself and the follow-up phone call, were interesting and important.