WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT?…. President Obama chatted with a couple of New York Times reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday, and the interview covered quite a bit of ground. I was taken aback, though, by the NYT approaching this nonsense in a serious way:

Q. The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?

A. You know, let’s take a look at the budget — the answer would be no.

Q. Is there anything wrong with saying yes?

A. Let’s just take a look at what we’ve done….

Let me get this straight. Unhinged and hysterical Republicans have engaged in an absurd red scare, in large part because the White House supports a 39.6% top rate. The very idea that the president’s agenda is similar to “socialism” is demonstrably ridiculous. So, given an opportunity to interview with president, the New York Times, arguably one of the world’s most prestigious news outlets, asks, “Are you a socialist?”

Indeed, the reporters brought it up again soon after.

Q. Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you’re not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?

A. No, I’m not going to engage in that.

During the presidential campaign, it was understandable, I suppose, to ask Candidate Obama to set the record straight about various right-wing memes. But for the paper of record to seriously inquire about the president and socialism lends credence to painfully stupid attacks.

As it turns out, after the interview was over, Obama called the Times to press the point further.

Obama: Just one thing I was thinking about as I was getting on the copter. It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question. I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn’t on my watch. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement – the prescription drug plan without a source of funding. And so I think it’s important just to note when you start hearing folks through these words around that we’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can’t say the same.

Q. So who’s watch are we talking about here?

A. Well, I just think it’s clear by the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. And the thing I constantly try to emphasize to people if that coming in, the market was doing fine, nobody would be happier than me to stay out of it. I have more than enough to do without having to worry the financial system. The fact that we’ve had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.

“It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.” The president sounds a little annoyed. He should be. Sometimes our political discourse is very, very dumb, and journalists who should play a constructive role in making it better often make it worse.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.