As pickup trucks give way to Lincoln town cars and sedans, and while we prepare for the President's State of the Union address this week, this may be a good time to reflect on the meaning and impact of the election of Scott Brown to the Ted Kennedy Senate seat in Massachusetts. And it is safe to say that the State of the Union address the President is giving this week will not be the same address he would have given had Republicans not won that Massachusetts seat. The President is going "populist," but that's to keep up with the country rather than lead it, and now he has to get out ahead of the country in order to try to catch up. That is never a sure prescription for success in a crucial election year.
First, the irony is not lost on me that in much of the post-election coverage of the Massachusetts election results, much of the media mentioned that this was the first time a Republican had been elected to the US Senate in Massachusetts since 1972. But very little if any mention was made of the fact that in 1972, that Republican who won the Senate seat in Massachusetts was an African-American, Ed Brooke. It is indeed a strange irony to consider how much progress we have made in America and then point out that in 2010, Massachusetts voters sent a White Republican to Washington to express their anger or dissatisfaction with an African-American President in the White House, while in 1972, Massachusetts voters sent a Black Republican to Washington to join in support of the White President in the White House and to express their validation of the notion that America had made substantial progress in advancing the concept of racial equality in the country. There are positives in both scenarios obviously, and the irony demonstrates that the cultural and social fabric of America is complicated, fragile, and fascinating when looking at race - and in this case, we're looking at "race," not racism.
Newly elected Senator Scott Brown proclaimed that the "people were tired of business as usual" and that they were tired of all of the "back room deals and closed door meetings." You would think that Boss Tweed was in the White House, not Barack Obama, who after all campaigned on these same themes when he was running for President. And the perception that these kinds of issues are still a major problem in Washington is part of the reason for so much general anger, and perhaps more significantly, is a primary reason that the President is losing Independents and young people, two of his most enthusiastic constituencies during his presidential campaign.
I am not surprised that Americans are angry, and you have to look at this anger in the context of not just Massachusetts, but also Virginia and New Jersey as well.
Democrats also lost in those States, and the exit polls consistently showed that many voters were indeed also sending a message to Washington and the Democrats in general and the President in particular. The President took on so much in his first year with some of it forced on him, and in hindsight, they wasted too much time and political capital on trying to get health care reform passed and then winding up the year with nothing passed. And in the end, the President was spending so much of his political capital trying to save the health care bill rather than just trying to pass a bill that he really wanted.
And that brings me to the President's second problem on health care - he never really defined to the American People what he wanted. I understand the strategy. In order to try to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton administration, the President decided to have this bill be the result more of a cooperative effort with the Congress rather than his own bill. But he took the Clinton lesson too far, not understanding that the Clintons problem was not the fact that they had their own specific bill they wanted to pass, but that they didn't allow for enough outside input, comment and open deliberation on their bill. Had the Clintons also just thrown the discussion open for everyone to create the initial bill without having a clear picture of what President Clinton wanted, their bill wouldn't even had gotten as far as it did, and the Clintons would have been looked upon as incompetent in the process as well, a moniker that they avoided in the extensive criticism they received during that process.
But for many Americans, they never really understood what President Obama actually wanted in his health care reform bill - and he often was not definitive. One day he wanted a government option, another day he insisted it wasn't absolutely necessary, and another day asserting that it was never even a major part of this health care reform initiative. And in that vacuum, that allowed the opponents to define the bill for many Americans (death panels etc), and that wound up costing too much political capital.
And for Republicans and conservatives, who is their "poster child or children" for opposition and angst in the manner Newt Gingrich was for Democrats in the 90's? - Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. And what did the President do? Essentially turn over the creating of the health care reform package to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, without giving them real guidance on what he wanted - a true gift to Republicans. And what's more, the vacuum allowed sub-set constituent groups represented by various Senators and Congressional representatives to set their own agenda as to what was important to them.
And so abortion rights issues at times superseded health care reform issues in the debate and other similar examples. And in the end, the Senate and House bills were so far apart that the opposition had a field day presenting the package in a negative light to the American people. The bills from the House and the Senate were so far apart that it's not possible the President could really support both bills - so he should have picked one and made it clear that's the one he wanted - if he really wanted it.
And meanwhile, the deficit was rising, the stimulus spending never seemed able to reach Main Street, Wall Street was giving out more bonuses while banks still weren't lending to new businesses, and unemployment was locked in at over ten percent - and the President seemed focused on health care - which hasn't passed yet.
No, I'm not surprised that the American people were angry, but I am surprised that they became so angry in just one year after electing a President who campaigned as the President who would change so many of the things that people were angered about. The President actually said that "Scott Brown was swept into office by a lot of the same anger that swept him into office." The President thought that was a positive statement - I don't. I don't because it suggests that you haven't made any progress in addressing the issues that the electorate was upset about when you were elected, and now they're still angry and are sending people to Washington who oppose you as they now see you as part of the problem, not the solution.
This President will have to address that in his State of the Union address, and he and his administration will now recalibrate and re-chart their course to try to capitalize on the populist anger and hopefully direct their energy and efforts to be more in sync with the electorate.
And for God's sakes, this President has to focus on improving the economy for Main Street and creating jobs for people on all streets.
If the President refocuses on these issues now, in January, then the Scott Brown election could be a blessing in disguise - better to get a wakeup call now than to get it on November 3rd when it's too late to correct a downward approval spiral among the American electorate. And now that they have the wake up call, let's encourage them not to sleep walk through November but to instead stay awake and make some real change and progress.
Tip O'Neil of Massachusetts said "all politics is local." And by in large he was right. But sometimes, when voters clearly say they were sending a message to Washington and to the President that they are "not happy with what's going on around here" as Detective Columbo once said, then clearly, while most politics is local, sometimes it's not!
Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio political and social topic commentator, and a national lecturer and consultant. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org