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Marcia Angell, M.D. Headshot

Message from Massachusetts

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Well, that was a game-changer! But don't misinterpret it (and don't blame Martha Coakley's lackluster campaign). Scott Brown's victory was not about the principles of either party, nor was it about the size of government, nor even about health reform, except indirectly. It was about disillusionment and anger with government.

When Obama became president, there was a euphoric sense that we really would see "change you can believe in." Yes, there were unrealistic expectations -- in the words of John Stewart's "senior black correspondent," a belief in "miracle Negroes," even though they're "just guys." But for the most part, people did not expect overnight solutions. What they counted on was that Obama would set to work keeping his campaign promises, and do so in a forthright and transparent way.

So what happened? Right out of the chute, he signaled that there might be very little change. After appointing the usual Goldman Sachs crowd as advisors, he showered money on Wall Street unconditionally, while doing relatively little for people who were losing their houses and jobs. Nor did he do much for the states, whose budget woes people feel directly and are a big part of what happened on Tuesday. He did some good things, of course, but they were mostly small and on the margins.

And the campaign promises? We still have both wars raging, with about the same number of troops, just re-distributed from Iraq to Afghanistan. We still have Guantanamo, we still have indefinite imprisonment without charges, and we almost certainly still have torture. As for transparency, there's still not much of it. And the federal deficit continues to climb, despite the lack of palpable relief for Main Street. Not everyone knows all of this, or cares, but some people know each of these things, and together, they add up to a lot of disillusioned people.

As for health care, not many of the angry voters understand all the provisions of the Senate bill (who does?). But they do know that Obama has "pissed away" a year on it, as Theda Skocpol says, much of it devoted to obsequious courting of the likes of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snow. That raised real questions about his abilities as a leader. And most people under 65 know that the reform would require them to buy commercial insurance, a prospect nearly everyone dislikes. Finally, they almost certainly have some inkling that the bill was written by lobbyists. After all, last spring the White House hosted a highly publicized photo-op and jamboree with the health industries, at which they pledged to work together.

Liberals are wrong to think that opposition to health reform is a rejection of big government. If health reform consisted of extending Medicare to everyone, people would be delighted. There are millions of 64-year-olds out there who can hardly wait to be 65. (And if the government created lots more jobs, they would be delighted by that, too.)

It's not the size of government; it's how well it works and on whose behalf. Many people no longer trust Obama to work in their interests, or even to tell the truth. They vote for Republicans mainly because they're the only other game in town. But I don't think that means they subscribe to Republican principles. In Massachusetts, Republicans constitute about 11 percent of voters, and I doubt whether that number will increase by much. People are rejecting both parties in droves and becoming independents, because they no longer believe government works for them, no matter which party is in charge. The same dynamic that swept Obama into office might well sweep him out.

It's also mistake to lump all the protesters together as Sarah Palin yahoos. There are many of those, of course, but in addition there are many people who, even if they're confused enough to vote Republican, have legitimate concerns, not all of them the same -- including Ron Paul libertarians who want out of Iraq and Afghanistan, deficit hawks who worry about saddling their kids with more debt, and ordinary people who are just worried or desperate and don't see any relief coming from government.

If they don't draw the wrong lessons from the Scott Brown debacle, the Democrats might still recover. The problem is not that Obama tried to do too much, but that he compromised away his principles.