What the ‘Mass mutiny’ reveals about the Obama era

A win for a Republican unknown not only spoiled Obama’s one-year anniversary in office – it also exposed a deeper crisis of American politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president. In his inauguration speech, Obama announced the start of a new era in American politics: ‘On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.’

Yesterday, Americans woke to learn that, 12 months on, Obama has not banished the discord of electoral politics. Republican Scott Brown, a relative novice to politics, upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election to the Senate in Massachusetts. Petty grievances, false promises, recriminations, worn-out dogmas – the Democrats displayed them all before and after this election, and they are now suffering as a result.

Brown’s win was a shock. Massachusetts is probably the most traditionally liberal state in the US, and the contest was to replace Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon of the Democratic Party up until his death in August. At one point Coakley was ahead by 30 percentage points. The unexpected result was also a stunning negative verdict on the national Democratic Party. As a consequence of the Massachusetts vote, it appears that Obama’s healthcare reform proposal – his priority over the past year – will not be enacted, as the Democrats no longer have sufficient votes in the Senate to overcome Republican opposition.

What is even more astonishing is how a special senate election for one seat can seemingly overnight change the narrative about Obama’s presidency and the outlook for the Democratic Party. Just a year ago, Obama’s victory was celebrated as the start of a ‘transformative’ change to politics. In late 2008, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, heralded the end of a conservative era and the emergence of a New Deal-style realignment towards Democratic Party dominance (1). And only days before the Massachusetts result, political commentators were giving Obama mixed but often positive reviews (Obama had done ‘not too badly’ said The Economist) and were predicting success with healthcare (‘health reform will probably become law’, again The Economist) (2).

But now the Obama storyline has changed from hope in the future to crisis in the present. Some commentators are effectively writing Obama off: ABC’s Rick Klein says the Massachusetts vote is a ‘fairly final’ judgment on the Obama presidency (3). Many now expect the Democrats to lose badly in the November 2010 mid-term elections.

The Massachusetts election has certainly revealed a remarkable volatility in US electoral politics. The Republican Party, which was down and out after the November 2008 presidential election, now appears to have recovered. Some have attributed the Massachusetts result, and the turn towards dissatisfaction with the Democrats generally, to certain contemporary factors, such as exceptionally high unemployment (at 10 per cent). Commentator Matt Bai argues that it is unrealistic to think in terms of a lasting political realignment because we now live in an ‘accelerated culture’ in which ‘our loyalties toward just about everything – laundry detergents, celebrities, even churches and spouses – transfers more readily than our grandparents could have imagined’ (4).

But the variability in electoral results has less to do with current economic factors or fickle consumer buying patterns, and more to do with the disengagement from politics. There is a lack of attachment and allegiance to political ideas and parties. The biggest trend has been the rise of ‘independent’ voters in the US – that is, people are less likely to commit to one party. Many pundits assume that these independents are ‘centrists’, but today there is no simple left-right divide to be in the middle of, and independents express little consistency in views on specific issues.

Indeed, the instability and unpredictability in today’s electoral politics can conceal an underlying continuity in popular political disenchantment that has existed for some time. In particular, the almost-obsessive focus on Obama himself and his personal characteristics – he’s an authentic, calming influence one minute, an aloof Dr Spock the next – obscures the deeper political forces at play.

The key underlying trend is political disengagement, a general dissatisfaction with politicians, especially those in Washington. This trend existed before Obama’s election, and it continues today. According to Gallup, 48 per cent in September 2008 had trust in Congress, down from 71 per cent in 1972. A year later, September 2009, those expressing trust in government was even lower – at 45 per cent (5).

This trend was plenty in evidence in Massachusetts. Independents were the key swing vote, turning against the incumbent Democrats. Brown did not put forward much in the way of policy prescriptions; the argument that seemed to strike a chord with voters was that the Democrats were arrogant and presumptuous for treating the long-time Kennedy seat as if they owned it. It was much more of a protest vote – sticking it to the party in power – than a rallying behind a different programme.

Obama himself rose from obscurity and was swept into power on the back of general discontent with established politicians. His campaign was centered on his personal biography – emphasising how different he was from standard politicos – with little stress on political philosophy or policies. Consequently, while his campaign technically enfranchised previously disenfranchised people (young people and minorities), the lack of political ideas meant that they were not politically enfranchised or engaged. The campaign managed to get out the vote on the day, but the ‘Obama movement’ has not been seen since. Moreover, as the election was all about him, Obama’s victory did not translate into broader support for the Democratic Party (6).

Obama became a conduit for people’s desire for a better, less cynical way of doing politics. But, of course, one man could not turn that situation around because by its very nature it is a problem that springs from a broader disengagement. Indeed, expecting an individual to resolve the crisis of politics can only make things worse in the long run, since it doesn’t appreciate the very deep and profound nature of that crisis of politics and it sets people up for disappointment.

For now at least, public support in Obama is holding up. Polls show that roughly half the population still has a positive opinion of his job performance; 58 per cent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll have a favourable opinion of him (7). Even in Massachusetts, 53 per cent of voters on Tuesday evening told pollsters that they had a favourable view of Obama (8). But the support is for Obama the man, not his policies; only a minority are in favour of his specific proposals. For example, approval for the Obama-backed health-reform package is at 39 per cent (9). What good does it do for the Democrats if people think Obama is a nice guy, while the party’s other politicians crash and burn around him and little of Obama’s agenda is accomplished?

Furthermore, Obama’s image as an agent of change has already been tarnished, and if this continues his favourable ratings will only drop. Having sold himself as a non-elite type who was not interested in the to and fro of old-style argumentative, ideological politics, Obama is increasingly tainted by being in power and by having to take political decisions and actions. Having pushed an anti-Washington – indeed, anti-politics – line during his campaign, he might fall to those same trends.

Obama seems to have some understanding of this. ‘Here’s my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country’, he said: ‘The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office.’ (10) But Obama is not merely a victim of forces beyond his control: his statement ignores how his own approach to governing has increased disenchantment with established politics.

Obama seems genuinely irked and baffled that people have not warmly embraced his liberal pragmatism. In a recent speech he said, ‘Sometimes, I get a little frustrated when folks just don’t want to see that even if we don’t get everything, we’re getting something’ (11). Not only is his incrementalist approach uninspiring – the opposite of the ‘transformational’ change that was promised – but splitting the difference often ends up being the worst of all worlds. For example, Obama’s peculiar line on Afghanistan – ‘yes we’re in it to win, but we’ll be pulling out soon’ – makes for a bloodier conflict (12). Similarly, the healthcare proposal expands coverage, but at the same time mandates that people must buy insurance with no control on the cost of premiums.

Obama’s approach, with lots of moving parts included to try to appease everyone, is also perplexing. His original rationale for introducing healthcare reform in the midst of a recession was that it would provide greater security to those who had lost, or might lose, their jobs. But because the proposal is byzantine – and neither the administration nor Congress has attempted to communicate its features – it mainly confuses people and thus adds to an existing sense of insecurity.

Although the latest events in Massachusetts and elsewhere suggest bigger problems than Obama’s popularity, many continue to misinterpret the situation. Just as the extent of change accompanying Obama’s ascendancy was exaggerated, now the Republicans’ triumph is also overstated. Not offering anything in the way of counter-proposals, the Republicans have no way to cohere support. It is claimed that the so-called ‘tea party’ movement is a growing force, reinvigorating the Republican base and, specifically, propelling them to victory in Massachusetts. However, the tea-party protesters are a small group, while the massive number of independent Massachusetts voters for Brown were mostly working-class people of various ages. Democrats argued that Brown was a dangerous Sarah Palin clone with a pickup truck, but his record as a Massachusetts state senator is arguably more liberal than that of some Democrats (13).

Labelling all voters for Republicans as far-right ‘tea party’ members is a way of trying to provide coherence to something that is amorphous, and turn the Democrats’ opponents into caricatures. This will only backfire, as it will entrench existing views of Democrats as elitist snobs. Liberals also seem to believe that the way to win over or neutralise protesters is by adopting populism, via attacking Wall Street and so forth. Obama certainly signalled that he was going to adopt more populist gestures in 2010 when he recently introduced his tax on banks. However, this populist turn misreads all current dissatisfaction as coming from ‘anger’; for instance, Obama’s speech on behalf of Coakley on the weekend used the word ‘anger’ over and over again. But this ‘anger’ is as empty as the word ‘hope’ was during the election campaign, and raising it condescendingly treats opposition as something that is emotional rather than logical. Furthermore, it is naive on the administration’s part to believe that no one will notice that a blatant move towards populism is a contrived tactic.

One year into an Obama White House, it should be clearer that American politics is not all about him. And to the extent that it is about Obama, the key change is that he is increasingly seen more as part of the ‘Washington’ problem than the solution to it.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) ‘Maybe he can’t’, Financial Times, 15 January 2010

(2) ‘Time to get tough’ and ‘Barack Obama’s first year: reality bites’, the Economist, 16 January 2010

(3) ‘Brand in crisis’, The Note, abcnews.com, 19 January 2010

(4) ‘The Great Unalignment’, New York Times Magazine, 24 January 2010

(5) ‘Americans’ trust in legislative branch at record low’, gallup.com, 10 September 2009

(6) See Whatever happened to the Obama ‘movement’?, by Sean Collins, spiked review of books, November 2009

(7) ‘Obama’s first year, by the numbers’, Washington Post, 17 January 2010

(8) ‘Rasmussen: It WAS a referendum on health care’, politico.com, 20 January 2010

(9) ‘National Job Approval: Pres. Barack Obama – Health Care,’ pollster.com, 20 January 2010

(10) ‘Obama weighs shift in health plan, seeking GOP backing’, New York Times, 21 January 2010

(11) ‘Defiant Obama defends first White House year’, AFP, 17 January 2010

(12) A bizarre declaration of war-and-withdrawal, by Sean Collins, 3 December 2009

(13) ‘Scott Brown is a more liberal Republican than Dede Scozzafava’, by Boris Shor, 15 January 2010

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