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Loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat leaves Obama out in the cold

In America, Events, Foreign Affairs on February 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm
The seemingly liberal state of Massachusetts has provided a damning verdict on Obama’s first year in the White House.

By Tom Kennedy

The loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s seat is more than just an embarrassment

“How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for you?” asked Sarah Palin when addressing the Tea Party Movement last week. Not too well it seems Sarah. Indeed, the reported ‘death’ of the Republican Party appears to have been celebrated a little prematurely. For a brief moment on election night, following a liberal, mixed race candidate emerging victorious, it appeared that America was finally starting to reject conservatism. According to Time magazine only last May, Republicans were “endangered species”.  However, the victory of Republican trucker Scott Brown in Massachusetts, widely regarded as a Democrat heartland, suggest that the GOP is far from finished. The growing frustration felt by many Americans towards Obama’s vision for the country meant that some manner of embarrassment at the polls was almost inevitable. However, the fact that Massachusetts was the place that provided this frank assessment of Obama’s first year at the White House is simply astonishing. The sea blue state has been represented by the Kennedy family for over fifty years. If ever there was a ‘safe’ Democrat seat, this was it. Yet Brown, a former Cosmopolitan centre-fold, has crudely capitalised on Obama’s mounting struggles, chiefly the much debated health care reforms.

The loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s seat is more than just an unfortunate embarrassment; it puts Obama’s entire domestic agenda at risk. It means that his vital supermajority in the Senate, the sixtieth filibuster proof vote, has been lost. As a result, health care reform, a fundamental objective of the Obama administration, has been left extremely vulnerable. Of course, the President will be able to identify moderate Republicans and try to convince them to vote in favour of his plans, but no one Republican wants to be the single vote that offers Obama a lifeline. Tellingly, the online betting website, intrade.com, now puts the odds of the Senate passing health care reform by June at just 33%. Bookies tend not to get these things wrong. The question posed by many during the 2008 election was whether Obama was ready to be President of the United States. Yet a year on, the more poignant query seems to be whether the US is ready for Obama. He was elected on the promise of change, yet many American citizens seem somewhat hesitant towards developing with him, and show a lack of trust in Obama as President. His promise to unite a nation and reform Washington is far from completion. Republicans appear as opposed to Obama as Democrats did to George W Bush. Today, it is no longer farfetched to consider that the Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives come November. The White House has been quick to blame Brown’s Democratic rival Martha Coakley for the disaster in Massachusetts. Admittedly, she was a less than inspiring candidate, and seemed to take victory for granted. Any politician who responds to accusations of passive campaigning by enquiring, “What am I supposed to do, shake hands in the freezing cold outside Fenway Park?”, fails to inspire confidence.  However, in truth, Brown was a protest vote. 78% of those who voted for him admitted that they did so in order to halt health care reform.

If it’s cold in Massachusetts, then Obama must be feeling distinctly numb in Washington, for Brown’s victory showed the growing dislike of Obama’s aspiration for America. The President cannot simply shrug this defeat off. In the words of Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, “If you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wakeup call, there’s no hope of waking up.” Sadly, Obama may have to distinguish between what he feels is best for America, and what the people themselves actually want. Ominously for the White House, Brown’s political ideology is the complete opposite to Obama’s. The Republican is aggressively opposed to big government and has forcefully attacked the President’s ambitions for health care reform. Massachusetts’s Republican Governor Mitt Romney claimed that “this shows that the American people are rejecting the arrogance of ‘Obama-ism” – the idea that government knows best”. It was hoped by many Democrats that the emergence of Obama and the conclusion of a wretched two year term under the Bush administration would all but see off any Republican revival, at least for a while. Even within Republican quarters, serious questions were raised over the future direction of the party. Now, Sarah Palin and other right wing politicians adored by the growing ‘Tea Party Movement’, see the 2012 election is a genuine chance to capture the White House. It is essential that Obama now focuses on avoiding a rout in the midterm elections next year. Although he is only a year into his Presidency, the mid terms are little over ten months away. If things seem hard now, then they could be even worse next year. If the Republicans were to trump the Democrats, Obama could be left almost powerless in his relationship with Congress, making re-election an uncomfortable challenge. At worst, Obama could become a Jimmy Carter figure. An ideological liberal, with noble and brave intentions, yet unable to effectively legislate as President, due to a lack of support in Washington. If the President wants to develop and change the country, he must avoid this at all costs, or risk being a one-term president.

In contrast to last year’s hysteria, the Obama effect is harming, rather than furthering, the political ambitions of the Democrat party. In Massachusetts, swing voters and independents, who were pivotal in electing Obama, deserted the Democrats. Brown made up a 30 point deficit in only a month to defeat Coakley, winning 52 per cent to 47. Whilst this is concerning for the Obama administration, they should take comfort in the fact that things can easily swing back in their favour. When the economic state of the country improves, Obama is likely to be under less pressure. When more Americans find themselves employed, the President will be face less hostility from the public. The President must see through this difficult period, and regain the support of the American people. This may mean moderating certain views and compromise may well be necessary if he is to govern effectively, just as Bill Clinton was forced to do before him. If Obama is to recover from the anti-incumbent fever that has gripped many of those who voted for him in 2008, it is necessary for him to understand fully what has gone wrong, and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. All polls indicate one thing; voters want Obama to concentrate on job creation rather than health reform. As a result, Obama may have to temporarily suspend his foremost strategy, at least for a little while. If the President’s state of the union address was anything to go by, then that might already be the case.

There is still a long time until Obama faces re-election, and a lot will change. It is fascinating to ponder how history will view Obama. Will he be a curious footnote in the history of the United States, the first African American president, a one term leader who promised so much but ultimately delivered little? Will he prove to be one of the great American presidents, the man who enhanced their foreign policy, introduced an environmental agenda to Washington and brought health care to those who so desperately need it? Only time will tell.