As the Republicans celebrate taking the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy, Conor Feeney reflects on the challenges now facing the Obama executive
The recent election of Republican Scott Brown to the United States Senate is a strong indicator of tremendous shifts on the US political landscape, not least because the seat was formerly held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy’s Democratic Party have held the seat for over 50 years.
Senator-elect Brown – who in his early years posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine – rode a wave of independent frustration to score the most stunning political upset in recent US history. His cause was helped by the lax campaign of Martha Coakley, his Democrat opponent and Massachusetts State attorney. Brown managed to overturn a 30-point polling deficit two weeks before the ballot to win with 52 per cent of the vote. The defeat is a wake-up call for the Obama Administration. Significantly, the Democrats have lost their 60th vote in the Senate, and can no longer railroad through Republican opposition in attempts to pass bills.
The cornerstone of President Obama’s domestic policy agenda is now under threat. Healthcare reform has been a top priority for his administration since its first day in office. It is a fact that in the world’s richest country, over 40 million Americans remain without health insurance.
Brown’s win creates a new terrifying dynamic for the Obama administration, where every state will be considered “unsafe” come the midterm elections later this year. Brown is an articulate and effective speaker, despite his unusual past for a politician, who campaigned hard and vigorously pressed flesh throughout Massachusetts. After his startling win in one of the heartlands of Democratic politics, he may now even be considered a potential challenger to Obama when re-election comes around in 2012. It is virtually impossible to imagine a Democrat winning the presidential election without carrying Massachusetts.
Ironically, however, the loss has presented President Obama with an opportunity to correct some of his perceived mistakes. A recent Gallup poll showed Obama to be one of the most polarising candidates since polling records began, and so the challenge of unifying the political and social spheres of the U.S. will be greater for Obama than most.
“Here’s what I ask of Congress,” President Obama recently stated on the issue of healthcare reform. “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.” The appetite of the American public for real change is undoubted, but Obama must be mindful of the scepticism that can arise when promises are not matched with quick action – especially given the current volatility.
One sure result of the Massachusetts election is that it is now highly unlikely that Congress will pass any climate change legislation, as the already-unpopular proposed ‘Cap and Trade’ Bill – which would have, for the first time, created a limit on overall emissions in the US – is surely dead. Businesses exceeding their emissions caps would have been fined under the legislation, leading many to hope that the U.S. may have led the charge in developing sustainable green forms of energy.
President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was geared to reflect the growing chasm in American politics. The pledge for real healthcare reform remains, however, along with issues such as allowing gays to serve in the military. It is clear now that the White House is leaning towards a more populist agenda, particularly in proposing a spending freeze to cut down on a record budget deficit, and systemic reforms of the banking sector. A ‘Move your Money’ campaign has been spawned by the left, in which savers have been encouraged to move their savings to community banks.
The question now being posed by American political commentators is whether President Obama can turn his words into action. It seems one of the few remaining undeniable truths is that the American public are far more sceptical that they were just a year ago. The hope remains, but the enthusiasm for ‘change’ has been severely damaged. Towards the end of the State of the Union, Obama stated: “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.” Now more than ever has the White House realised that the American people’s patience – and even desire – for President Obama’s change is wearing thin.