I won't say I predicted it, but I had a hunch that Tuesday's U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts might go badly for the Democrats and the White House, casting fresh doubt on the Obama agenda, including getting Congress to pass a climate bill.
I happened to spend a few days in western Mass. a week before the election, speaking for the Dowmel Lecture Series about the Copenhagen climate summit and what comes next. I had taken Amtrak up from New York City, a beautiful two hour ride along an often-frozen Hudson river. I was then fetched from the train station and driven an hour east to the charming town of Stockbridge, in the heart of the Berkshires, a region known for its glorious summers, ample cultural offerings and generally liberal politics. As we passed through lovely rolling hills and farmland, I kept seeing lawn signs with the name Brown on them. I hadn't followed the Massachusetts raise close enough to know, so I asked my companions who Brown was.
"Oh, he's the Republican running to take over Teddy Kennedy's old seat," the husband replied.
"Looks like he's got some support," I ventured.
"Well, maybe," the wife said. "We've been hearing about polls saying that the race is tightening. That's okay, it reminds us to call people and get them out to vote next Tuesday."
You all know what happened next. Scott Brown, the Republican challenger, took 52 percent of the vote, against 47 percent for the Democrat, Martha Coakley. This, despite the fact that Massachusetts has long been the most reliably Democratic state in the Union, and despite the fact that President Obama made a last-minute trip to Massachusetts to try to salvage Coakley's faltering campaign. Brown's victory means that Democrats will now hold 59 seats in the U.S.
Senate, leaving them even more vulnerable to Republicans blocking their initiatives through filibusters.
How did this happen?
Coakley did herself no favors as a candidate; she hammered the final nail in her coffin a few days before the election, when she mindlessly claimed that Boston Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan. It also looked like Democrats were out-organized on the ground. I didn't see a single Coakley lawn sign or poster during my Berkshires visit. Still, I suspect the real problem goes deeper, and straight to the White House.
As I said at a brown-bag lunch at the Open Society Institute on Tuesday, the White House has lost control of the narrative of the Obama presidency. Obama--surely the most naturally gifted communicator who has occupied the Oval Office since at least Ronald Reagan--and his aides have somehow allowed their opponents to define the terms and direction of the national political conversation.
Through their own strategic choices, Obama and his staff have let his presidency be painted as taking the side of the much-hated bankers over the common person. On health care, Obama is now seen as favoring higher taxes over better care. On climate change, the White House and Democrats are in danger of losing the congressional vote on climate legislation because they have failed to make the case that tackling climate change will actually save, not ruin, our economy.
The common thread through all of this is: Obama and his staff have abandoned the political principles and organizing strategies that got them elected in favor of cozying up to the powerful interests and inside-the-Beltway thinking that Obama the candidate derided. The American people, no dummies, have responded by turning increasingly critical of and impatient with the White House.
Climate change is the issue I know best, and it illustrates the broader problem. As with the health care bill, the White House left the drafting of the climate bill up to Congress. The result was a bloated, nearly incomprehensible 1,400 page bill that keeps oil and coal states happy, rewards some of the country's biggest polluters (through a giveaway of emissions permits) and falls woefully short of what is necessary to (perhaps) avert catastrophic climate change. (Current legislation proposes to reduce US emissions by 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. The scientists of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that cuts of 25 to 40 percent are needed.)
Even before the election of Scott Brown--who, in line with Republican doctrine, has questioned whether global warming is real-- this bill faced an uphill struggle in the Senate. But one can't blame just the Republicans. Many Democrats have also lined up against the climate bill, largely citing fears about its impacts on energy prices, jobs and economic fundamentals during a recession.
The truth, as Obama well knows, is that if we're smart about fighting climate change, it can make us money, create jobs and open new markets for American companies. Obama has said as much, on the few occasions when he and his advisers have decided to have him speak about the issue. The problem is, those occasions have been too sporadic to influence public opinion. The president of the United States has the biggest bully pulpit in the world. If he is not controlling the political conversation in America, it is because he has chosen not to do so.
Obama should be driving home the message again and again: fighting climate change is in the economic interest of the vast majority of American workers and businesses. The same is true of passing real health care reform, including injecting competition into the system through a public option so that taxpayers aren't stuck with higher costs. It is also true of reining in Wall Street's grotesque excesses.
Making this case, loudly and repeatedly, would send a message to the public: this president is on the side of the people, not the powerful. Wall Street might complain, the insurance and health industries would blanche, the oil and coal companies would fume, but the American people would thank Obama, and he could ride their support to victory on Capitol Hill, just as Reagan used to do.
Things may look grim, but I believe that it's not too late for something good to come out of the Massachusetts debacle. If Obama and his advisers draw the right lessons, if they return to first principles and make a point of siding with the people who elected them rather than the special interests that lobby them, they might still recover public support in time to avoid a route in this fall's congressional elections.
There is some evidence this about-face is under consideration. At the end of last week, the president finally signaled he was going to take on the banks. Announcing the administration's plan to impose a fee on banks to recover an estimated $90 billion in federal subsidies that saved the banks from bankruptcy, Obama delivered a pretty good sound bite: "We want our money back." And just today, Obama announced some fairly tough new regulations on big banks' operations.
He'll have to go much further, though. Obama's base--the people who went door to door for him during the campaign--have been left feeling pretty disillusioned by his first year in office. One supporter recently posted an angry blog, listing one issue after another where president Obama has violated what candidate Obama had promised:
Afghanistan, Iraq, the economy, health care, climate change. After noting that he had contributed a couple hundred dollars to Obama's campaign--a large sum for a grassroots activist--the supporter concluded by saying, "I want my money back."
A wise politician listens to the people, even when the message is hard to accept. The coming weeks will reveal what kind of politician Barack Obama is, and whether he is likely to be granted a second term as president, come 2012.