To make sense of Obama's economics talk on Tuesday, or last week when he appeared at a General Electric* factory with CEO Jeff Immelt—now chairman of Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness—you need to adopt an unusual view of the economy. Rather than a country that allows many different businesses and investors to compete, work together, sell, buy, and hire, the Obama vision of the American economy is a nationalistic one, with Obama the boss.
Rachel Maddow, a liberal MSNBC* host, aptly described it as "more of a CEO-style pep talk than a football-rally style pep talk." We are all shareholders and employees of America Inc.
This corporate mind-set upsets liberals, but it should upset conservatives more. While Maddow called the address "a prayer to the free market," Obama's speech, like the economic vision he has been laying out for a year, is something else—something that would resonate more overseas.
"Germany is the model," said Immelt last year, addressing exporters and bankers as the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that subsidizes exports. Immelt also praised Japan's model of "government and business working as a pack." He showed envy for China's "incredible unanimity of purpose from top to bottom."
Obama isn't quite as forthright as his economic adviser Immelt, but you see the same economic nationalism in everything he says on the economy these days. On Tuesday night he called for "a new era of cooperation," so that the United States can "win the future." Using capitalist buzzwords like "investment," Obama called for more government spending on research and continued government subsidy of "green" technology like solar panels and electric cars.
So it's not capitalism, but it's also not the "Marxism" with which many conservative pundits have charged Obama. You can call it corporate socialism or corporatism.
One thing to keep in mind is that the citizens lack something shareholders have: the right to sell shares when they don't like a CEO's strategy. If we do not think that competing with China on green technology is a good idea, we still have to pay for it. A citizen and a shareholder are clear and separate things, which is why a president should not be anything like a CEO.