A year ago, our newly-inaugurated President gave his address to a nation eager for change. Then just a week ago, the people of Massachusetts voted for change, albeit one the Democrats did not anticipate. The seat held by Sen. Ted Kennedy for nearly half a century in a state that has not elected a Republican senator since 1972 will now be filled by a Republican by the name of Scott Brown.
Yes, the same Scott Brown whom Keith Olbermann called “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” He did apologize later though … for leaving out “sexist.”
As my friend Wally Forman observed, “If Olbermann is right, people must really hate Obama.”
Or at least his policies.
To be sure, Brown is no conservative, at least on social issues. Yet he campaigned on a straightforward platform that included conservative positions on economic policy and national security. Most significantly, he has vowed to be the 41st vote against Democratic health care legislation that until last Tuesday was steamrolling its way through Congress.
Like their fellow voters in New Jersey and Virginia demonstrated last November, Massachusetts residents are not pleased with the way Democrats are handling the country. Obama may have successfully kept his post-partisan pragmatist mask in place during the campaign, but lately that mask is slipping from his face to reveal the liberal ideologue underneath. And Americans are not happy with what they see.
Some may take issue with the claim that Obama is no fair-minded pragmatist, declaring that Democratic leaders in Congress are the ones refusing to act in a bipartisan manner. Between the closed-door meetings to craft legislation and the labeling of conservative Americans as redneck, gun-toting, racist, sexist, Bible-thumping, Nazi-sympathizing tea-baggers, it becomes difficult for anyone, even The Messiah, to reach out to Republicans.
This assertion, however, leaves the president open to charges of amateurism and incompetent leadership for allowing members of his party to hijack his agenda. Obama the candidate promised to rid Washington of “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long;” as president, he appears to be enabling it. He stood by idly as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid handed out kickbacks like candy to senators in exchange for votes in favor of health care legislation. He twiddled his thumbs when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused townhall protestors of carrying swastikas. He even allowed his own administration to pick petty fights with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
That’s not to say that Obama has managed to stay completely above the fray. Recently, the president himself bowed to special interest pressure by giving union members a five-year exemption from the tax on health insurance that Democrats were planning to impose on over 90 percent of the labor force in order to pay for their health care package.
Moreover, despite having held office for over a year, Obama continues to recycle that same tired response to criticism again and again:
“The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they are frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”
Translation: it’s all Bush’s fault!
Now Obama is correct when he says Americans are angry. However, his assessment of the source of their anger is not quite as accurate. Americans feel betrayed by a president who vowed to bring bipartisanship to Washington but has instead tried to ram his legislation through Congress without substantial Republican support. His definition of “bipartisanship” is looking more and more like Bush’s “take it or leave it” approach with each passing day. Real bipartisanship involves the willingness to compromise, and so far the Democrats have not demonstrated such willingness. In fact, Obama appears to be much more comfortable offering an extended hand to the clenched fists of countries that want to destroy us than to American politicians on the other side of the aisle.
But the main reason behind American anger, to borrow a phrase from a president who became a real pragmatist, is “the economy, stupid.” Instead of the pragmatism we were promised, Obama and the Democrats have convinced themselves that the stimulus package will get the economy back on track, leaving them free to pursue their anti-capitalist, anti-growth, ideological policies like cap-and-trade, tax increases and the expansion of government health care coverage (which will cover more people, cost less, and will magically not be rationed!). Yet the economy, if it is improving, is still in a fragile state. Americans are fearful that more taxing and spending will short-circuit the recovery and plunge us into another recession.
The most transparent indicator of Obama’s lack of pragmatism and bipartisanship may be yet to come, depending largely on how Obama and his party react to the Massachusetts election. If they pretend Brown’s win was nothing but a minor setback and continue pushing their liberal agenda, they risk political suicide in exchange for adherence to ideology. But if they step back and try to repair the partisan divide through compromise and pay attention to economic recovery, they may be able to hold onto the pragmatist label, though at the expense of implementing liberal policies.
Christie Pesavento is a senior who is majoring in political science and sociology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.