Change Comes Again

By Dick Polman, Philadelphia Inquirer - January 24, 2010

To really appreciate how far the political pendulum has swung, let's check in with Chris Matthews.

Two winters ago, the TV host was all atingle about Barack Obama, to the point where "I felt this thrill going up my leg." But last Tuesday night, when a heretofore obscure Republican state legislator named Scott Brown jolted Obama by snatching Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, Matthews was like a puppy on uppers. Before the polls had even closed, he was grooming Brown for immortality: "Does he have a hot hand politically, to run for the nomination for president next time?"

But Matthews can be excused for busting the needle on his effusion meter - given the seismic nature of the Democratic debacle in Massachusetts, and the damage that has been done to the president's political standing. Ticked-off swing voters in an overwhelmingly blue state, feeling anxious and alienated, rendered a thumbs-down verdict on Democratic Washington. It was a fresh manifestation of a phenomenon we have seen before - a revolt of the angry middle - and it will be instructive to see how Obama processes the message.

Granted, Obama's party was saddled with a terrible Senate candidate. Martha Coakley had the common touch of Marie Antoinette, she disdained the idea of shaking hands with voters "in the cold," and she went gallivanting on vacation at the height of the short campaign, thereby ceding the TV airwaves to Brown, who was free to define himself as a man of the people. Which, from a Democratic perspective, was a shame, since Brown's populist image was a bit of a fraud. Yes, he drove an old pickup truck, but his candidacy was backed by corporate and Wall Street interests, and he owned five properties, including a time-share in Aruba.

Granted, Coakley whiffed on every pitch. But if Obama and his agenda - particularly his health-care push - had been sufficiently popular in Massachusetts, she would have been dragged across the finish line with votes to spare. The angry middle had already revolted in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in November. This latest election, in the Kennedy family's backyard, is irrefutable proof that Obama, and Democrats generally, are on thin ice with a sizable and growing number of swing voters.

I'm talking, in particular, about the white modest-income voters who have little allegiance to either political party. As a candidate, Obama had trouble connecting with those voters during the primaries - in Pennsylvania, for instance. But he drew a sufficient share of them on Election Day, which was fortunate for him, since they're still the swing constituency in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

In recent months, however, they have become increasingly convinced that Obama doesn't share their economic pain, that he has been too absorbed by the protracted legislative sausage-making on health-care reform, at the expense of focusing like a laser on jobs, jobs, jobs. And they have come to believe that, under health reform, they'll be taxed in order to bail out the uninsured - a perception that has taken hold in part because Obama has done such a bad job of touting the upsides of reform and rebutting the Republican narrative.

The latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll reports that, among those Americans with modest incomes between $30,000 and $75,000, only 35 percent currently support health-care reform, while 53 percent oppose it. And in terms of rating Obama's job performance, the shares are identical: 35 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove. Not all modest-income Americans are white, of course. But Pew also reports that whites with little or no college education (and who are heavily concentrated in that income bracket) are down on Obama. The shares are almost the same. Only 36 percent support his job performance, while 54 percent don't.

The Massachusetts returns show similar sentiment. I looked, in particular, at four largely white modest-income towns. In the 2008 election, Obama easily won Lowell (66 percent), Gardner (59 percent), Quincy (59 percent), and Fitchburg (60 percent); in the Senate election Tuesday, Republican Brown easily won all four.

It might seem counterintuitive that these voters would flock to a Republican, given the fact that the national GOP has done squat over the years to combat health insurance injustices, and that it spent much of the past decade toadying to big business, doubling the national debt, redistributing wealth to the richest Americans, and indulging the hustlers who have wrecked the economy. Indeed, the GOP still fares worse in the polls than Obama's party.

But Obama has the power now, and he was elected on a promise of fighting for the average working stiff - whereas, today, he is increasingly seen by swing voters as fighting for the big shots (Wall Street) and the have-nots (the uninsured), at the expense of the working stiff, who is fixated on the double-digit jobless rate. Obama and the Democrats will suffer greatly in the November congressional elections unless they can reconnect with Joe Sixpack and others in the angry middle.

The big question is how. An aggressive, sustained fight against Big Finance might be a start, coupled with a strong focus on job creation and a downsizing of his other domestic ambitions. Given the political realities and the strictures of the recession, he may have no choice but to take a more incremental approach - especially on health care. Voters in the angry middle want competent governance that betters their lives. Right now, they perceive that Obama is in over his head. He needs to erase that perception with measurable results.

On the eve of the November '08 election, one newspaper sage warned that Obama should not "mistake a solid win for a sweeping ideological agenda," because, after all, "contemporary America is actually slightly right of center."

That was me, folks, writing in this space. I'll stand by that.


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