Obama is not a socialist in spite of what the swift boaters implied. In context you might have guessed Joe the Plumber was charging him with being for a progressive income tax - but not socialism. Why, however, does the word "socialism" have such negative power?
"Socialism" means the collective or public ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
Socialism is not about how decisions are made.
Democracy is the most rational way to make decisions. At least our Founding Fathers thought so, steeped as they were in the 18th century ideas expressed by Locke, Hume and Bentham - empiricists who argued that democracy, a system by which decisions are made after deliberation in arenas where all opinions and facts could be considered, is the most rational way to determine the will of the people.
The Founding Fathers certainly were not in favor of universal suffrage. And they certainly didn't question private ownership of their farms and businesses. They never imagined that decisions about their management of the means of production should be subject to democratic decision-making.
It was almost 100 years later that the idea of socialism introduced a problem or contradiction. Socialism, arising out of industrialization in Europe dating from about 1830 was the basis of many 19th century utopian ideas. If democracy was such a rational way to make political decisions, why not extend it to economic decisions too?
Socialists mainly share the belief that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls capital and creates an unequal society. Socialists generally advocate the creation of an egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are distributed more evenly.
Thank God the Founding Fathers had built the protection of minorities (white men with property) into the Constitution as a protection against mob rule. With the rise of socialism, the owners of farms, businesses and factories had no doubt that they would not be in charge if democracy were to be extended to economic decisions as well as political decisions. The masses would just vote them out and take over ownership of the means of production - socialism.
That's pretty much what Marx advocated except that he didn't trust the people any more than the Founding Fathers did so he envisioned a transition during which there would be a "dictatorship of the proletariate" before the state would wither away into utopia. That and the fact that most real Communist countries ended up with some pretty awful dictatorships, gave socialism a bad name making it easy for the capitalists to oppose, at least during the Cold War against Communism.
But wait. Socialism is not about how decisions are made. Do we trust the American people to make important decisions? How about people without property? How about women? Blacks and Hispanics? If we do trust the American people to make important decisions, aren't we back to that 19th century contradiction that if we believe democracy is the best way to make political decisions, why not economic decisions?
I wouldn't mind a vote in how the banks, the oil industry, the insurance and drug companies, are run. I guess that's called governmental regulation, if not socialism. Maybe a little regulation now would forestall nationalization or revolutionary takeover of the means of production down the road.