The Elephant in the Room: Tide turns against Obama

Democrats faced a pair of devastating defeats. Republicans must seize the day.

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President Barack Obama walks down the center aisle greeting members of Congress on his way to deliver his State of the Union address Wednesday night on Capitol Hill. In just two weeks, the political landscape has shifted monumentally. (AP Photo/Tim Sloan, Pool)

Although it's hard to make judgments this close to events, last week had the feel of a major turning point in American politics.

A week ago Monday, President Obama was on the verge of, in his words, "history." His trillion-dollar government takeover of health care was all but passed, thanks to a backroom deal hammered out with the AFL-CIO to exempt unions from a tax on "Cadillac" health plans. Obamacare would have marked a giant step in the transformation of America from our founders' society, based on equality of opportunity and personal responsibility, to a new order, based on equality of results and entitlement.

But Massachusetts came to the rescue. In the land of the original tea party, which ignited a revolution, modern-day tea-partiers rallied against an arrogant and intrusive government in a special U.S. Senate election and saved America from this catastrophe.

Our founders were not shy about seeing the hand of providence in their implausible victories. While this was not the battle of Trenton, the victory of a Republican Senate candidate with no money, name recognition, or campaign organization - who had trailed by up to 30 points in a state where only 11 percent of voters are registered Republican - is nothing short of a miracle.

It turns out that even voters in this bluest of blue states wanted no part of Obamacare - or higher taxes, or treating terrorists who try to blow up airplanes like shoplifters, or record federal spending and deficits.

And so Obama's health plan went from making history to being history. By Thursday, some congressional Democrats had admitted defeat and decided to move on to other issues, instead of working with Republicans on a plan to improve, rather than replace, our private health system.

That same day, the Supreme Court struck another blow for our founders and against government control by re-extending the First Amendment to all citizens. It ruled that the First Amendment's "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" also applies to unions and corporations.

Before the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law was passed, commercials sponsored by special interest groups, including unions, hammered me right up to Election Day. I didn't like it, but what I like less is the idea that politicians could abuse the Constitution by limiting dissent at election time. Unions, nonprofits, and businesses shouldn't be discriminated against just because they are willing to spend lots of money to promote their causes.

The election and the court ruling sent shock waves through Washington. Democratic banter about passing climate-change legislation and giving unions the upper hand in organizing more businesses has ceased. I would argue that almost no Senate Democrat is a safe bet for reelection in the November midterm, and more than 75 House Democrats are in very competitive races. Some pundits say it is likely that Republicans will win back the House and come close to taking the Senate.

What's Obama's takeaway from all this? Cut spending? Lower taxes? Reduce regulation? Stop treating terrorists like common criminals?

No. He told ABC News that he just has to "start speaking directly to the American people," so voters will better understand all the good work he's been doing. That's after doing 158 interviews - far more than any of his recent predecessors - and making 411 speeches, comments, and remarks, according to CBS News.

Obama's solution? He rehired his former campaign manager, David Plouffe, who said last week that Massachusetts was not a repudiation of Obama's agenda. So, instead of changing course, Obama is changing consultants. Instead of starting to lead, he's returning to campaigning.

Congressional Republicans cannot count on this kind of tone-deafness alone to win in November. They have to respond to legitimate voter frustration with a positive agenda that includes tax cuts to create private-sector jobs, spending cuts to reduce the trillion-dollar deficit, and policies that keep foreign terrorists out of our civilian courts.

And don't let the Democrats move off of health care. Offer constant amendments to cut health-care costs by reforming the private insurance market and the legal system, as well as measures to increase the number of insured through tax credits for buying insurance, paid for by real budget cuts.

Commonsense problem-solving will look good next to a return to the pathetically counterfeit campaign rhetoric of hope, change, bipartisanship, and transparency. Let's get to it.


Rick Santorum can be reached at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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