What happens now?



My Sunday print column, updated and expanded:


To really appreciate how far the political pendulum has swung, let’s check in with Chris Matthews. Two winters ago, the hyperbolic cable 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 (that's the perception anyway; it might also have been a thumbs-down verdict on the Massachusetts Democratic establishment). Whatever the true mood mix, 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 interprets and 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. And, granted, Coakley spoke like a schoolmarm reciting from a textbook. But if Obama and his agenda – particularly his health reform push – had been sufficiently popular in Massachusetts, she would been dragged across the finish line with votes to spare. The angry middle had already revolted in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last 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 night, which was fortunate for him, since they’re still the swing constituency in the crucial electoral states of 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 non-partisan 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 last Tuesday, Republican Brown easily won all four.

And here’s another measure of modest-income white sentiment: In a post-election poll conducted by The Washington Post in parthership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 62 percent of non-college educated white voters said they cast their ballots for Brown. Fourteen months ago in Massachusetts, 57 percent of non-college whites supported Obama.

It might seem counterintuitive that modest-income white 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 national polls than Obama’s party – and that was again the case in Massachusetts last week, despite Brown’s win. According to the new Washington Post poll, 58 percent of the Massachusetts voters said they were unhappy – “dissatisfied” or “angry” – with the congressional Republicans; by contrast, 47 percent felt that way about the Democrats. (Which helps to explain why Brown rarely mentioned, on the stump or in ads, his Republican label.)

But it's Obama who 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 understandably 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 (in recent days, Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric, for what that's worth), 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 reform.

Indeed, his aides signaled over the weekend that his State of the Union address on Wednesday will feature some relatively modest proposals aimed at helping the economically burdened middle class. It sounds as if Obama is trimming his sails, although, naturally, an Obama adviser reportedly said yesterday that "in no way does this represent trimming of the sails."

As for the future of health care reform...who knows. The Democrats certainly don't know, and the White House is sending mixed signals. Obama hinted in an interview late last week that he might consider shelving the mega-comprehensive bill and salvaging the most popular provisions. But several top Obama allies (including '08 campaign strategist David Plouffe, who has now returned to the fold) hinted over the weekend that the Democrats should simply persevere on the big package. Plouffe, with an eye on the '10 congressional races, wrote yesterday: "Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted - such as the so-called death panels - are baseless. We own the bill and the health-care votes (that have already been cast in the House and Senate). We need to get some of the upside."

The issue, going forward, is whether the Democrats are doomed by all the talk about the downside - notably, the swelling of the deficit and other unwelcome symptoms of big government. Voters in the angry middle want competent governance that betters their lives; right now, by that measure alone, they perceive that Obama is in over his head. He needs to erase that perception with tangible results; as he himself said in Ohio last Friday, “We don’t need big government. We need smart government.”

On the eve of the November ’08 election, one commentator 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.


I'm scheduled to conduct a live online chat tomorrow at noon. It will be accessed here.