Ron Radosh

What Did Obama Mean in 2001?

You already know from posts on PJM by Tom Blumer and Roger Kimball about Barack Obama’s 2001 radio interview on WBEZ, a Chicago PBS station. Blumer’s post publishes the entire broadcast comments by Obama on the issue of redistribution of wealth, but those who want to listen to Obama’s actual interview can find it here.  


If there is any doubt that Obama at one time believed in an essentially socialist economic agenda, the proof is here. On, John B. Judis offered a video defining socialism, and argued intelligently that Obama’s belief in a progressive income tax system is not socialism. I think Judis is correct in his argument; a progressive income tax has long been a staple of our modern mixed economy. But I wonder what Judis would think about Obama’s interview, in which he argues that redistribution of wealth  is a legitimate legislative goal necessary to attain “political and economic justice in this society?”


Bill Whittle has a first rate analysis of the meaning of Obama’s words at National Review’s website. They mean, he writes, that Obama does not favor “creation of wealth and certainly not the creation of opportunity, but simply taking money from the successful and hard-working and distributing it to those whom the government decides ‘deserve’ it.”  Whittle terms this “garden-variety socialism.” Anyone has a right to espouse such policies, but it now is legitimate to ask Barack Obama whether he once subscribed to that view, whether or not he has abandoned it, or whether he still favors it.  One might also inquire from Obama whether he believes, as he implied in the radio show, that it was unfortunate that even the Warren court was not more radical, and that the constraints put in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers might have been wrong.


Given  all the above is clear, one must simply look in wonder at the Obama spin machine and how it is dealing with this.  The first shot was offered by Andrew Sullivan, who writes on his Atlantic blog that Matt Drudge, who first posted the Obama interview, distorted its meaning by writing the headline: “2001 Obama: Tragedy That ‘Redistribution of Wealth’ Not Pursued by Supreme Court.” According to Sullivan, Obama was only “making a case against using courts to implement broad social goals- which is, last time I checked, the conservative position.”  He was therefore only “arguing that the Constitution protects negative liberties and that the civil rights movement was too court-focused to make any difference in addressing income inequality, as opposed to formal constitutional rights.” Hence Obama was simply making a conservative case about “the limits of judicial activism.”


Sullivan too offers his readers the full Obama text, to show that he is not taking words out of context. That only makes one question whether Sullivan himself has carefully read what Obama had said. Clearly, at least to this reader- as well as most others who have read it- Obama is bemoaning the fact that the Court has no authority to enact redistributive economic policies. Therefore, it is his hope that they be achieved through “political and community organizing on the ground” that will enable them to “put together the actual coalitions of power” that will then “bring about redistributive change.”


Obama’s words are important because they reveal his actual policy prescriptions, not because he has offered a conservative position on judicial activism.  For some time now Sullivan has joined the ranks of those who have been seduced by Obama. But can’t he come up with a better argument than he has in his blog today?