Barack Obama went to Boston to rally voters and got a pie in the face. He lost his innocence as the valiant young president and also lost his sixty-vote majority in the Senate. Now we will find out what the man is made of–either a true political leader or just another show horse. Dozens of explanations are being offered for why the Dems were humiliated in Massachusetts. Democrats incline to grab easy answers. The president, if he is tough enough, will instead face the hard message of this political fiasco.
The special election displayed monumental miscalculations by which Obama has governed, both in priorities and political-legislative strategies. It may seem perverse and unfair, but the president’s various actions for reform generated a vaguely poisonous identity. Amid the general suffering, Obama is widely seen as collaborating with two popular villains–the me-first bankers and over-educated policy technocrats of the permanent governing elite. Obama made nice with the bankers and loaded up his administration with Harvard policy wonks who really don’t know the country. These malignant associations gain traction because people see there are grains of truth in observable reality.
On Sunday, I listened on the radio to Obama’s soaring speech at Northeastern University and remembered again why his oratory first took the nation to the mountaintop. His attack lines lashing bankers and insurance companies were fluid and tough, shouted repetitively over the rising cheers. His diction was loosely colloquial. He dropped the hard g’s to get down with the folks. Too little, too late, I figured. He is still masterful, but this is performance, not substance. People grasp the difference between the two. This gulf will imprison Obama as a stereotype for weakness, a joke on late-night TV, if he doesn’t change.
The humiliation, I decided, could become a good thing for this presidency if it forces Obama to rethink his political strategy and rearrange his governing order. For all his brains and talent, for all the brainy people around him, the Obama White House seems tone-deaf and blind on many aspects of the popular reality. Too full of itself to listen closely. Too condescending to recognize the rage and fear are about more than right-wing frothers.
On healthcare, Obama played coy while his White House aides cut private deals with the drug industry and other sectors. The legislative process was drawn out month after month in an addled bargaining marathon with hostile Republicans (who stiffed him in return) and industry-leaning Democrats (who got whatever they demanded). The liberal base was conned, ignored and bullied, as its vital issues were one by one discarded. Labor unions were stroked and intimidated by the White House, then double-crossed as Obama’s reform extracted greater costs from union members than it demanded from the drug makers. People at large were confused, then frightened. They could not understand what reform would do for them, and some of their doubts were well-founded. The longer it went on, the more people wondered why Democrats weren’t talking about their problem–jobs and incomes.