By Gil Troy, The Globe and Mail, 1-20-10
The people of Massachusetts handed President Barack Obama a stinging political rebuke on his first anniversary in office. The descent from “Yes we can” to “No we won’t” was dizzying. Mr. Obama won the Bay State last year by more than 25 percentage points in his triumphal march to his historic inauguration. A year later, Republican Scott Brown won the special Massachusetts Senate election by five points to replace the late Ted Kennedy. The message is clear: Voters, especially independent ones, believe Mr. Obama’s presidency is on the wrong track.
To avoid derailment, President Obama must learn from Candidate Obama to transcend partisanship. He must reread his analysis in The Audacity of Hope that America has moved beyond 1960s-style Big Government liberalism, even as it realized it must move beyond 1980s-style Reaganism, too. In short, Mr. Obama must renew his vow to lead from the centre.
Although the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, ran a Keystone Kops campaign in Massachusetts, Mr. Obama should take her defeat personally, especially after campaigning for her on Sunday. Mr. Brown boldly made the election a referendum on Mr. Obama’s leadership and Mr. Obama’s health-care reform. Cries of “41” at Mr. Brown’s victory party celebrated his new power as the 41st Republican senator, preventing the Democrats from blocking a Republican filibuster that could bury health care or any other major reform.
Campaign signs calling Mr. Brown “the people’s candidate” captured his campaign’s populism, immortalizing his greatest moment. Moderating a debate between the candidates, CNN’s David Gergen asked Mr. Brown about the irony that, by sitting “in Teddy Kennedy’s seat,” he might sink Mr. Kennedy’s long-sought health-care reform for another 15 years. Mr. Brown’s reply was one of those great political sound bites: “Well, with all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat.”
Mr. Obama’s big drop in Massachusetts is among independent voters – paralleling a nationwide collapse. To win them back, he must disprove the growing impression that he is a 1960s-style “tax and spend” liberal, wildly expanding the budget deficit by responding to every major problem with a big government solution. More broadly, he must liberate his presidency from the death grip of congressional Democrats.
Polls show Mr. Obama made two huge mistakes with Obamacare. First, by focusing on health-care reform before the economy revived, he seemed to be exploiting the crisis to force change, believing, as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has said, that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Second, by deputizing Congress to draft the legislation, Mr. Obama ended up with a bill that appeared fiscally irresponsible, excessive, clunky and perverted by the kind of legislative logrolling – meaning legalized bribery – that characterizes Congress at work. Instead of hovering above the fray like the philosopher-king most Americans thought they were electing, Mr. Obama got mired in Washington’s political muck, smelling like every other political hack.
Mr. Obama should learn from the great Democratic Party phoenix, Bill Clinton, who understood how to find redemption by playing to the centre, repeatedly. But, even more important, Mr. Obama must become what he once was, a human dream catcher, weaving a redemptive, inclusive narrative that wowed Americans – and the world – with a message of hope, a politics of healing, an instinct for outreach and the gift of fine phrase.
Mr. Obama first caught Americans’ attention with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, preaching a modern multicultural gospel of mutuality and idealism at the heart of American nationalism. None of that poetry was apparent when Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson secured promises of complete federal funding forever for his state’s expanded Medicaid payments, while other states would only enjoy three years of full funding. Mr. Obama should reread his Audacity of Hope with its many homilies about forging consensus, crossing the aisle and governing with a spirit of bipartisanship. And he must revive the national sense of idealism and optimism with which so many Americans greeted his election.
True, Mr. Obama ended up governing amid economic distress. And true, the prose of governing is never as uplifting as the poetry of politicking. But the crisis facing America and the tone Mr. Obama set on his way into office should have reinforced a push to the centre rather than to the left.
Traditionally, U.S. presidents have found salvation in the centre – George Washington evoked America’s common cause, Abraham Lincoln sang a new song of American nationalism, and Franklin Roosevelt passed one of America’s most radical reforms, Social Security, with a strong bipartisan majority. To revive his presidency – and to pass a realistic health-care reform bill – Mr. Obama should remember this American tradition and solve today’s crisis by being as moderate as other past presidents, thus reminding all Americans of their common commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and just future.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.