Thursday, January 21, 2010

obama in trouble

Massachusetts! Of all the states to go Republican, I would never have guessed it would be that bluest of East Coast states. Extraordinary, extraordinary and terrible. Obama has to face up to the first, catastrophic, humiliating defeat of his political life. And there goes his senate super-majority, and any hope of the Healthcare bill passing in its current form. Christ.

What does all this mean for Obama?

Firstly, it’s pretty much what I’d be calling a disaster, if the horrific events of Haiti over the last week hadn’t reminded us all exactly what a disaster looks like. Ordinarily, a defeat at this stage of the cycle (a year in to a new Presidency which has been mired, through no fault of the incumbent, in economic collapse) would not signify so very much: governments often lose by-elections, especially during recessions, and the loss of one seat may negate Obama’s super-majority (he needs 60 out of 100, rather than 51, to pass significant legislation) but the Senate still has a healthy majority of Democrats.

But the unusual, feverish world of US Politics is stranger and sadder than that. Obama may only have lost one seat, but the current Republican party is more partisan than any in recent history, and is completely, unambiguously opposed to co-operation or compromise. Once upon a time, the GOP was a broad party representing many hues of the right – but now it is a cantankerous, disciplined beast which is entirely resistant to every law, no matter how good, or how moderate, the Democrats propose. For as long as students of contemporary politics can remember, the Democrats had, in Ted Kennedy, the best deal broker in global politics. Even if he was still there, though, he’d be hard pressed to come to an agreement with a solitary Republican. They intend to bring Obama down by obstructing absolutely everything he does. Now that Scott Brown has Kennedy’s seat, they can do that. It’s a real mess.

And if the Republicans can win in Massachusetts, they can win anywhere – all of a sudden, there’s no such thing as a safe seat in US politics.

Now, clearly this is awful news for Obama. He’s going to have a real job on in confronting and turning around this deeply discouraging turn of events. But he has to do more than just negotiate his way around this vast obstacle – he has to confront his own failings and the fact that his own mistakes helped make this happen. A year in to his presidency, it’s clear that he’s tried hard, and any liberal would take his policies over those of his predecessor in a heartbeat, but errors have been made.

Firstly, I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, had any premonition of how incredibly hard the healthcare battle would prove. In retrospect, with the economy in the state it is in, it’s probably the case that he should have left it alone until the economy picked up again. That’s a bitter admission for anyone who believes that the provision of universal healthcare is a fundamental duty of government, but the last year has proved that it is so. The opposition (for this goes beyond the Republicans) has been ruthlessly efficient in attacking the plan, organising and protesting, taking in many ways their cue from the ceaseless, senseless hounding of Clinton which they perfected in the 1990s. Obama, in contrast, has been passive, slow to make his case, and too detached from the process. He has caved in too often, and not taken charge of the situation.

The real problem has not been the bill, but the process. On the one hand, the bill has been repeatedly, robustly attacked by the American right and the conservative media, to the point where fallacious speculation about its’ contents have been repeated as fact. On the other, Obama has entrusted Congress to draft a bill in precisely the same long, slow, argumentative, concession-heavy method that it always has. A year later, the bill is almost broken – universally misunderstood but no longer universal; the public option is gone and what is left, though a dramatic improvement on what has gone before, falls way short of expectation. This is not the ‘new politics’ that Obama promised. It is the old politics, done badly. Obama’s inability to influence and drive Copenhagen was cut from the same cloth. America’s new President promised change. The change from Republican policy is to be warmly welcomed, but the greater drive to change the political process, and to change American society, has stalled.

So, what he does do? Try to push the healthcare bill through in some further weakened form? Scrap it and start from scratch? Scrap it and forget it?

Well – America isn’t Haiti and this isn’t, yet, a disaster. Worse politicians than Obama have survived blows more damaging than this, and he has plenty of time to prove that his prescription for America is worth taking. But he has to respond to this quickly – prove that he can keep going when a blow is landed and swiftly adapt his game. If the healthcare bill is dead, it may even be a good thing – the bill as it was was looking cancerous, something that might infect everything he did from this point on, and to have lanced it now may ultimately work in his favour. What he needs to do is affirm his priorities (it’s the economy, stupid), get on track, then come back and find a way to fix healthcare afresh. That means bringing to the table a bill which the American people understand – healthcare reform is an argument he can yet win. But right now he needs to be quicker, clearer and more direct on the issues that the electorate care about.

He’s down but a long way from being out. The next few months might define this Presidency.

No comments: