There's been a lot of talk in the last couple weeks over whether Barack Obama is a socialist. I think the two main events that have spurred this on are the revelation of his past association with a social democratic party called the New Party, which is openly left of the Democratic mainstream, and redistributionist talk from him both at the last presidential debate and from a particularly explicit quote from 2001 about how the pretty leftward Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution.
Here's what I think is going on here. Obama is an incrementalist. He hasn't always been. His change is actually chronicled in his first book. Alinsky-style community organizing is very close to an implementation of a socialist agenda to undermine the capitalist system. There's every indication that Obama was in the thick of Alinsky-style work, even if he never agreed with everything Alinsky followers thought. He identified with the kinds of things they were trying to do in community organizing. It was Alinsky followers who trained him and then recruited him to train others in the same techniques. But Obama's community organizing was a failure. He was disappointed at every turn, according to his book. He eventually gave up on that method of change and turned to politics, where he knew he could try to get at least something done, even if it was only a little bit of a change at a time. I'm not sure he's really moved from that attitude. The New Party is exactly what you'd expect of someone with such a view. He was willing to run as a Democrat with an additional New Party endorsement in order to indicate that he's to the left of mainstream Democrats while seeking their support anyway. It was an attempt to mainstream a left-of-Democrat candidate, and it was an effective strategy until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
But this in itself shows that Obama is at least practically not a socialist. The distinction between socialism and European-style social democrats is that socialists seek to undermine and overthrow the system, and social democrats seek to work within the system to reform it gradually. The New Party was basically a bunch of former socialists who had become social democrats. Their goals had become more pragmatic. They were going to change what they could by moving the Democratic party to the left. The only way their candidates could win is if they also had the Democratic nomination, so they opted for double-billing to get their candidates more votes. (I'm not sure how New York still does it with parties like the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. Does anyone know how those function differently from what the New Party was trying to do? What they do is obviously not the same, or it would have fallen under the same Supreme Court ruling.)
I'm convinced that Obama hasn't changed his ideals all that much. There's no way someone could say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution (alongside redistributionist language) unless there's a strong socialist steak still present, at least in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would look like. Even if that socialist streak has been toned down since, Obama said this after his conversion to being a social democrat. He does seem to be a redistributionist of sorts in the classic socialist mode, at least in his ideal government. How much he'd be willing to try to do depends, of course, on how much he expects to be able to get done. The scariest thing about an Obama victory for an economic conservative is that he'd almost certainly have at least two years of a Congress who would basically give him everything he wants, except on the few occasions when the Blue Dogs in the House might join with Republicans to prevent any particularly repugnant bills, but their influence seems to be about to diminish at least somewhat after this election. (It still amazes me that Democrats are running to replace minority Republicans in Congress by arguing for change. Giving the party in power more votes is change?)
So I don't think it's quite right to call Obama a socialist. He seems to be something closer to a European-style social democrat, at least in what he will try to do. But that just means he won't try to implement socialist ideals if he doesn't think he can. With a Congress entirely willing to grant their new Leader whatever he wants, I'm not sure that difference is as much as it might seem. Conservatives who keep calling him a socialist do seem to me to be on to something, even if I'd hesitate to apply that label straight out, and I think it's sufficient reason even for moderate Democrats to be very wary about casting a vote for him given that there won't be any divided government to reign in what he might try to do. I can understand why my friends who are themselves left of the Democratic party love him. I can understand why a lot of people are delighted to play a role in putting the first black president into office. I can even understand a mainstream Democrat who would have preferred Hillary Clinton but might still think Obama is closer to their views than McCain is. What I can't fathom is conservatives and moderates who think they're going to be getting a moderate Democrat who will vote for him just because they think McCain is too much like Bush, figuring Obama seems harmless enough because his proposals sound pretty centrist. That's what explains most independents' and moderates' support for Obama, and it strikes me as either ill-informed or irrational.
Update: Be sure to read the comments. The (first?) Nov 2 comment in particular has links to some much more detailed discussion that seems to me to confirm my general thesis that Obama holds that a socialist theory of justice would be good for the Supreme Court to endorse at some point but might be pragmatically worth getting to at most incrementally.