WASHINGTON — Republicans are honing an attack line against President Barack Obama in an attempt to play on Americans' fears of government overreach and economic uncertainties, suggesting he is nationalizing American industry and socializing medicine.
Drawing on the government's ownership stakes in auto giants, insurance companies and banks — and the billions of tax dollars at risk — the GOP is trying to develop wedge issues in the national debate over how to repair the economy and expand health insurance.
It's a strategy the party hopes will pay off in campaigns for Congress next year and, in the process, help rein in Obama's outsized influence.
Democrats dismiss it as conservative sloganeering. And Obama is pushing back hard, lashing out on Monday at opponents to his health-care overhaul efforts as using "fear tactics to paint any effort to achieve reform as an attempt to, yes, `socialize medicine.'"
"There is a fear of change — a worry that we may lose what works about our health care system while trying to fix what doesn't," he told an American Medical Association conference in Chicago.
Outnumbered, Republicans are working hard to tap into negative public attitudes toward "socialism" and taxpayer bailouts.
Government meddling in the private sector is "a bridge to socialism," asserts Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. "It's time to get the government out of the bailout business once and for all," says House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
More and more demonstrators outside Obama appearances are waving signs denouncing his supposed embrace of "socialism."
The GOP is portraying the health care effort — which Obama has made a top priority — and government bailouts as two faces of a dangerous burst of governmental activism by Obama and a supportive Democratic Congress.
No matter that the bailouts and nationalizations were begun under the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Or that the word "socialism" may not evoke the same degree of alarm among the public it once did, especially among younger voters.
Too much government control?
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Still, Republicans point to polls that show that Obama's handling of the economy isn't his strongest card, even though his overall approval ratings remain high.
"People are as two-minded as they always have been about the role of government," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
"On the one hand, people want the government to do things. On the other hand, they worry and are very skeptical. They think government controls too much of their lives as it is. And they think that the government doesn't often get it right."
Kohut said Republicans might be able to tap into this skepticism. Of course, if Obama is perceived as fixing the economy and bringing about improvements in the health care system, "It will be difficult for Republicans to make gains on these issues," Kohut said.
Republicans have been doubling down on the strategy — used in the 2008 national election campaigns — that Democrats in general and Obama in particular are seeking to vastly expand government control over Americans' lives.
Republican consultant Frank Luntz, who wrote a detailed strategy plan on the language of health care, suggests that Republicans use the term "Washington takeover." While vague, it "grabs attention," he says.
"The vast majority of Americans who like the health care they have risk losing it when a government-run system takes over," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The administration's defense
Obama ridicules the notion that he favors a step toward European-style socialism. "Nobody is talking about doing that, all right?" he said at a recent town-hall meeting.
And Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday the Obama administration only views its ownership role as a temporary necessity. "We get the hell, the heck out as quickly as we can. As the president says, we don't want any part of running any of these companies," Biden said.
Video: How much is too much federal intervention? Obama is leaving it to Congress to take the lead in designing a health care plan. He has endorsed broad proposals, supported by many Democrats, to create a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers.
Republicans claim such a system would lead to government rationing and denial of care and could drive the private companies out of business.
Americans' fear of socialism?
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said Republicans may be misreading how their evocations of "socialism" will resonate with the public.
"I really don't think fear of socialism is gripping Americans by the throat," Baker said. "I think there's a feeling in some ways that the government was asleep at the switch for the past eight years. I think people see steps taken by Obama as a healthy compensation for that inactivity."
Meanwhile, the administration is pushing back hard against GOP criticism over its activism in trying to combat the worst recession in decades.
"The actions we take are those of necessity, not choice," Lawrence Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, told a forum in New York on Friday. Summers said Obama "did not run for president to manage banks, insurance companies, or car manufacturers ... We do not want to be owners."
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