Just recently, things were looking up for socialism. In April, a much-discussed Rasmussen poll reported that only 53 percent of Americans expressed a preference for capitalism. The poll didn’t define either system, so one could surmise that the right’s desperate strategy of branding a popular Democratic president as a "socialist" had backfired: If Obama’s a socialist, then a good number of the 69 percent of Americans who viewed the President favorably were apparently ready to sign up. Perhaps this new openness to alternatives wasn’t deep, but it seemed promising.

Now, the Obama=socialist meme, which was once just laughable, has gone viral.

It’s still hard to take it very seriously, given how far Obama’s policies are from even the mildest form of social democracy–recall how he explicitly rejected the idea that the United States should emulate Sweden’s highly effective response to its early 90s financial meltdown, when it overcame the crisis by nationalizing the banks.

Still, the ludicrous notion has traction. The other day, Alaska governor Sarah Palin ripped Obama on Fox News for leading the nation toward socialism through "nationalizing many of our services, our projects, our businesses." The RNC went so far as to declare that "the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals."

The GM takeover was a tipping point. For the right, "Government Motors" is the smoking gun, definitive proof of Obama’s heretofore secret radical leftist agenda. The "New GM" is the target of a boycott spearheaded by right-wing radio bloviator Hugh Hewitt, who declared, "I won’t buy a socialist car." Rush Limbaugh, who flirted with the boycott before disavowing it, fumed, "This guy came into office with an agenda, a pure socialist agenda, and he’s implementing it without regard for current economic circumstances."

But what’s really going on with the GM nationalization — just as in the bank bailout — is more akin to corporate statism than socialism. In order to qualify for federal help, GM had to "slim down"– 21,000 GM workers will receive pink slips in the wake of this so-called rescue, and the UAW was forced to swallow painful concessions. It’s not as if this occasion is being used to facilitate a real transition to a worker-friendly green economy, converting auto factories to production facilities for wind turbines, solar panels, light rail, etc. Sure, there are murmurs about fuel efficiency, but as Obama himself said, the goal is "to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach and get out quickly." He wouldn’t even take a position on whether the corporate headquarters should remain in Detroit. This is no socialist plot: it is a company bailout.

When the dust settles, the Big Three might still be standing, but Michigan will probably still face the highest unemployment rate in the nation (currently 12.7 percent and rising).

So, one might ask, from the right’s standpoint, what’s not to like? After all, if conservatives didn’t mind the crony capitalism of the Bush era, they shouldn’t bridle at the GM bailout. The Republican hysteria that greeted the takeover was less about substance than partisan pushback: If Obama’s for it, they’re against it, because what else are they going to say?

More insidious, and significant, is how the business lobby has used the GM controversy to fuel its campaign against government regulation of any kind. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is poised to punish the Obama administration for so much as thinking aloud about reining in the private sector. The silly GM boycott is a sideshow: the real assault is emanating from the Chamber, which just announced that it will spend $100 million on a "Campaign for Free Enterprise" to stem the "rapidly growing influence of government over private sector activity."

The Chamber has in its sights the financial regulations set to be unveiled next week (being weakened by the minute), as well as the public healthcare option–a.k.a., Obama’s "socialized healthcare" proposal. To Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the threat posed by the public option is dire: "If Democrats enact a public-option health-insurance program, America is on the way to becoming a European-style welfare state. " If that happens, he predicts, "our nation will be changed in damaging ways almost impossible to reverse."

Actually, there is lively debate among progressives about that very question. Some harbor hope that the public plan will lead to more comprehensive reform; others doubt that it can be used to pry open the door to single-payer. But few sane observers would dispute that the modest public plan is a far cry from universal, national healthcare — the kind of system that would produce better health outcomes for less spending across the board by cutting out the profit motive altogether. The kind of, yes, socialized system that people might actually like.

If the right succeeds in rebranding corporate-friendly Democrats as the revolutionary vanguard — and if the Obama administration continues to cave into corporate pressure to water down its weak-tea reforms — we could see the opposite effect from the one that appeared so encouragingly in the Rasmussen poll result: Obama and the Dems could give socialism a bad name.