Business Times - 22 Jan 2010
Obama faces revolt of the independent
Tea Party movement wants action on jobs, not healthcare reform - which they see as wasteful government spending
By LEON HADAR
ON THE eve of the one-year anniversary of Barack Hussein Obama's historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States - the first African-American to hold that office - the new president ended up getting clobbered, big time, in Massachusetts.
No, President Obama was not running for any political office in the Bay State this week. But the fact that a little-known Republican politician (his main claim to fame was posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1982 when the magazine named him 'America's sexiest man') succeeded in defeating, by a decisive margin, a prominent Democrat in a special election to fill the US Senate seat that was held by the late Edward Kennedy (and before that by his brother, John F Kennedy) - was a devastating political blow to Mr Obama and the Democratic Party that had gained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in November 2008.
Massachusetts, after all, is the nation's 'bluest' state, with the largest percentage of voters who describe themselves as 'Democrats' and 'liberals'. In fact, Massachusetts was the only state that had voted for the ultra- liberal Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 (when Republican Richard Nixon was re-elected president). Mr Obama had carried the state by a huge 62 per cent margin during the 2008 presidential race when many pollsters and pundits were predicting that Mr Obama's electoral victory - including in some leading 'red' states like Virginia and North Carolina - was going to usher in a new era in American politics that could transform the Democrats into a majority party for many years to come.
These political experts attributed the Obama victory and the expected rise in Democratic power to important social and demographic changes (the growing electoral power of young and non-white voters) and to the aftershocks of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
That was the kind of thinking that assumed that American voters were disenchanted with Republican free- market economic policies and were interested in seeing the federal government play a more activist role in managing social and economic policies. It encouraged the new president and his allies on Capitol Hill to launch major legislative initiatives that some referred to as New Deal II, including a massive spending programme aka economic stimulus as well as an ambitious effort to reform America's ailing and costly healthcare system.
One of the leading driving forces in the fight for health reform was the late Senator Kennedy, a veteran crusader for liberal causes. And it is ironic that his seat will now be occupied by the conservative Scott Brown, whose stunning defeat of Martha Coakley - the state's Democratic attorney-general, who enjoyed the strong support of Mr Kennedy's widow and the entire Democratic establishment - has been attributed in part to his fierce campaign against Mr Obama's healthcare reform legislation.
Mr Brown ran on his pledge to deprive the Democrats of their 60-vote majority in the Senate, which will now make it close to impossible to get the healthcare bill approved by Congress.
Moreover, Mr Brown was the candidate of the Tea Party movement. This is a coalition of conservative activists and groups that have rallied against what they describe as the 'socialist' policies of Mr Obama and the Democrats - alleging that they were planning to 'take over' the entire American economy - in the name of an angry populist message directed against Washington and Wall Street.
The conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Tea Party types represented a relatively small and marginal electoral minority of mostly ageing and angry white voters who could not adjust to the new political reality in which a young African-American president was pressing for dramatic changes in the status quo, including the healthcare reform programme.
But like many times in the past, that conventional wisdom proved to be wrong.
Indeed, opinion polls suggest that Mr Obama and the Democrats may have failed in deconstructing their 2008 electoral victories and their political message. While liberal activists and young and non-white voters had clearly played an important role in getting the first African-American elected as president, what really tipped the electoral balance in favour of Mr Obama was the vote of independent and moderate voters, including those in the 'red' states (mostly white middle-class Americans) who were clearly fed up with the incompetence of the Republicans - as demonstrated by their handling of the Iraq War and the mismanagement of the economy - and were willing to give the Democratic presidential candidate a chance to govern.
At the centre of their concerns was the wrecked American economy, especially the high rate of unemployment.
In many ways, these independents and moderates do share the populist rage of the Tea Party activists vis-Ã -vis the 'fat cats' on Wall Street and are uneasy with (if not opposed to) the idea that their tax dollars are being used to bail out these alleged villains.
The political bottom line is that after 52 weeks in office, Mr Obama has failed to respond to these concerns of such independent and moderate voters. They were desperate for real change and had voted for Mr Obama in 2008 but have now provided the Republican Brown with his margin of victory in Massachusetts - besides helping get Republicans elected as governors in New Jersey and Virginia three months ago; again, these are two states that had voted for Mr Obama in November 2008.
Hence, from the perspective of this independent-moderate voter, the healthcare reform legislation was perceived as nothing more than another wasteful government spending programme; although critics on the political left counter by suggesting that Mr Obama has worked too closely with the health insurance companies and has failed to market what could have been a progressive social-economic programme that would have enjoyed wide public support.
But what seemed to hurt Mr Obama and the Democrats more than anything else was the perception that the Obama White House was a close ally of the infamous financial industry - failing to reform the bailed-out banks which, while paying huge bonuses to their employees, have refused to increase their lending to struggling consumers and small businesses.
Mr Obama also seemed to be too detached and 'professorial' when it came to the issue of unemployment, spending too much time on managing the healthcare bill while refraining from 'doing something' to create new jobs.
But not all is lost yet for Mr Obama and his Democratic allies. Opinion polls indicate that while his job approval ratings have fallen, Mr Obama is still a popular figure and that voters remain sceptical about the ability of the Republicans to get America out of the current economic mess.
White House aides and Democratic operatives have indicated that Mr Obama is planning to embrace a more populist-driven agenda in the coming weeks. One example is his call for imposing large taxes on the large banks. If the Republicans, as expected, oppose this idea, Mr Obama and the Democrats could depict them as the political buddies of the 'fat cats'.
Then there is certainly the possibility that the economic recovery will accelerate and that the unemployment rate will start falling. In any case, Mr Obama needs to recognise that American voters remain supportive of his call for 'change'; the problem is that they have concluded that he has failed to deliver the kind of change he had promised during the campaign.
He still has three more years to prove them wrong.
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