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Obama, Akin tangle over congressman's use of 'stage-three socialism' in student loan debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s penchant lately for comparing federal programs to “stage three socialism’’ has caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who told college students Wednesday in Iowa that the congressman’s remarks are “a new way to go off the deep end.”

Obama did not identify Akin, R-Wildwood, by name. But because of the phrase he targeted, political reporters and some GOP activists quickly figured out about whom the president was talking.

Obama’s jab was hard to miss, with video of it played all over the cable news shows Wednesday. Most of the TV hosts also identified Akin as the target.

Said Obama: "You've got one member of Congress who compared these student loans — I'm not kidding here — to a 'stage-three cancer of socialism.' Stage-three cancer! I don't know where to start. What do you mean? What are you talking about? Come on. Just when you think you’ve heard it all in Washington, somebody comes up with a new way to go off the deep end.”

Akin, who is running for the U.S. Senate, issued a statement later asserting that the president had misquoted him. Akin said he wasn’t referring to student loans as “stage-three cancer of socialism.” Rather, the congressman said he was talking about the federal programs providing them.

“I was not saying that student loans are a cancer.  I referred to the policies where there is a government takeover of private industries,” Akin said.

He was referring to the change, since Obama took office, in which the federal government stopped subsidizing banks that offer the loan, and has instead offered Stafford loans directly to students – as was done a few decades ago.

Akin called it “the government takeover of student loans,” which he said reflected a similar approach toward health care and energy.

“I suspect the president was given a misquotation of what I actually said, but I am sure we have a fundamental disagreement on the role of government and what constitutes socialism regarding current public policy,” the congressman added.

Akin made his "socialism" assertion about government involvement in the student loan processduring last Saturday's debate in Columbia, Mo., with his chief Republican rivals: St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.

Actually, Akin has embraced the phrase “stage three socialism,’’ or variations of it, for months as part of his standard campaign rhetoric as he seeks to win the Republican primary this summer and challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, R-Mo., this fall.

The phrase has been a crowd-pleaser to conservatives. And the same may be true of the attention Akin has attracted from the president, who conservatives adamantly dislike. Obama's jab is likely to win points for Akin among the GOP's conservative base, at a time when he and his Republican rivals are jockeying over who's the most conservative.

Last Saturday morning, Akin used the phrase during his speech to hundreds of Republicans gathered at Lindbergh High School for the 2nd congressional district convention, which was Round Two of the state GOP’s presidential caucus process.

Akin contended that the nation as a whole, with Obama as president, is experiencing “stage three socialism.”

At least the congressman now knows that the president was paying attention.

Blunt, Democrats weigh in -- while Akin seeks cash

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., made clear Thursday that he supports federal student loans, while sidestepping Akin's criticism of the program.

"The grant and loan programs have been in place since World War II," Blunt said, and reflect the belief that the nation needs "a work force as prepared as they can possiblity be."

He added, "Access to some sort of assistance makes a difference to a lot of kids." Blunt noted that he was the first in his family to attend college.

Blunt said he didn't know what Akin had said and couldn't comment on it.

The Missouri Democratic Party, however, called on Akin to apologize to the nation's students.

“Todd Akin’s remarks were offensive on Saturday and they’re offensive today,” said Caitlin Legacki, Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman. “Akin has refused to back away from his comments or his philosophy toward the federal government’s role in keeping college affordable. Akin is having the dangerous effect of pulling his primary opponents further right as he gains traction in this Senate race. While this position may help Akin in a Republican primary, it's just too risky for college students and middle-class families.”

The congressman, however, opted Thursday to seize the opportunity and the publicity -- by using the episode to raise money.

Akin's campaign sent out a fundraising email -- entitled "Special Alert" -- that included the text of Obama's remarks. 

"If you're tired of the president mocking those of us who fight for limited government, then stand with Todd Akin today," the e-appeal said. It featured links to his campaign website where donors can contribute online.

The congressman added in the appeal: "The president’s comments today show the deep divide between our philosophies of government -- mine of states’ rights and free markets and his of socialistic government expansion."

Start of update: Despite his objections to the federal involvement in student loans, Akin voted Friday in favor of a House bill to prevent an increase in the loans' interest rate.

The congressman said he did so because he supports the House plan for keeping the interest rate low -- by taking money from the federal health-care program's allocation for women's health services. Akin, who opposed the health-care law, called the allocation "a slush fund."

“I do not believe that the government should be in the student loan business. By forcing out private lenders, Obama is creating the Freddie Mac of student loans," Akin explained in a statement later.

“I do support the mechanism for paying for the lower rate, which will be taken from the Obamacare 'slush fund.'

“Recently the president criticized my assessment of the administration’s policies as being socialistic in nature. I stand by my comments. Those very policies, which are driving private industry out of the market place, are responsible for creating an economy where many college grads are not able to find jobs and are forced to live with their parents.

"If we are sincere about helping students, we must do more than provide access to debt, we must also have policies that allow job creation so that they have hope for employment as well. My vote today is consistent with both of those concerns.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.