What these ideas have in common is, first, an attachment to economic freedom that no self-respecting socialist would countenance. In fact, most of Obama's measures are designed to save, not destroy, the instruments of capitalism--businesses and the markets in which they compete. Should liberals get everything they want, liberals will once again--as has happened so often in the United States--gone a long way toward rescuing capitalism from its worst excesses.
Moreover, it has for some time now been established that the moderate use of government to improve the lives of large numbers of citizens, while producing minor increases in equality, is primarily about giving citizens more liberty. People who, with the help of government, need not postpone medical care or can avoid going into lifetime debt to pay for it are freer people. Progressive taxation, especially the way Obama talks about it, is not about confiscating the wealth of the rich bit about giving those at the bottom of the ladder more opportunity. Modest enhancements of what has been called 'positive liberty' do not come anywhere close to socialism; they instead make liberalism's benefits more widespread.
We cannot at this point know what his [i.e. Obama's; JW] legacy will be. But we do know what it will not be. Eight years of Obama, and the United States has its best chance to return to the liberalism that has long defined its heritage. There would be no greater blow to socialism--in America, in Europe, or anywhere else--than for this venture to succeed.
Instead, what those 30 percent of under-thirties probably mean by "socialism" is a much greater degree of government--and public--control of private corporations and of the market. That would put the United States closer, say, to Sweden, France, or Germany, but would not put it anywhere near the old Soviet Union, which tried to abolish the market itself. Most of all, I imagine, it's an expression of extreme disillusionment with the magic of the market as preached by Republicans and some Democrats as well.
It's also, I think, not an incorrect understanding of socialism. As a political philosophy, socialism predated Marx as any reader of "The Communist Manifesto" or of "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" is aware. In America, too, there were Christian socialists like Walter Rauschenbusch, who was an important influence on Martin Luther King, and prairie socialists in Kansas or Oklahoma who never envisioned giving up their farms for socialism. The point that runs through all these many varieties was not collectivism, but instead the subjection of large banks and businesses to social priorities: "people before profits," as Bill Clinton said in 1992. And that's what those 20 percent of Americans in the Rasmussen Poll seem to be opting for.