Loss in Kennedy Seat Haunts Obama Agenda

WASHINGTON ~ On the last day of Barack Obama’s first year in power, Republicans cast huge doubts on his hopes of a transformative presidency by capturing the Senate seat once held by his mentor Edward Kennedy.

In a stunning upset, angry Massachusetts voters on Tuesday chose Republican Scott Brown, who vowed to be the single vote his party needs to block Democratic health care reform – the cause of the late Kennedy’s life.

The loss snatched away the 60-vote super-majority Democrats needed to trump Republican blocking manoeuvres in the Senate, calling into question the party’s capacity to pass not only health care but other top Obama agenda items.

“Of course, it is rotten news for the administration. Of course, it is rotten news for healthcare (reform),” said Barbara Kellerman, of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The triumph will electrify Republicans bent on blocking Obama’s agenda and scare Democrats facing re-election in mid-term elections in November.

Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley fell for many reasons: complacency, a poor campaign, public disdain for incumbent leaders in Congress and independent voters making a point in a vote some saw as a referendum on Obama.

But Republicans were already driving a simple narrative on Tuesday night: that voters lashed out against Obama and his healthcare reform plan.

The question must also be asked: if Democrats cannot hold liberal Massachusetts, and the dynastic perch of Kennedys, what other seat is safe?

The Massachusetts loss follows two stinging Democratic defeats in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia where Obama won big in 2008, and comes as his personal approval ratings dip below 50 percent.

“I can’t imagine a stronger message that voters are sending, but I am not sure that the White House is listening,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a campaigns specialist at Fordham University, New York.

The White House earlier rejected the idea of the special election as a repudiation of its tactics: spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president knew Americans were “upset” and “angry” but dismissed he had lost touch.

Coakley’s loss gives Democrats an immediate problem – passing healthcare – the cause of Kennedy’s life until he died in August, and a set of long-term political headaches.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi was adamant that healthcare would pass into law, but Democrats will need to use political sleight of hand to do so.

“We will have quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans, and it will be soon,” she said.

Longer term, Republicans will relish the chance to gum up the Senate, frustrate Democrats and possibly spark a political stalemate in the run-up to November’s elections.

Obama has a packed agenda and had signalled attempts to pass a huge climate bill, financial regulatory packages and even to the hot-button issue of immigration reform next year.

But can such transformative goals be reconciled with an angry populace, skittish lawmakers and Obama’s diminished political standing?

“The agenda is going to slow somewhat – just by virtue of the political climate,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Obama took office at a time of deep national economic peril, and on the rationale that a huge crisis requires fundamental change pursued an ambitious domestic political agenda.

But will he now simplify his agenda and downplay expectations in a bid to head off an electoral calamity in November? And can he avoid a repeat in those polls?

“A stripped down version on which he could focus more personally, and carefully, would be my recommendation,” said Kellerman.

But it would be a mistake to write off Obama, given that ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also rebuilt their presidencies on economic recovery.

“The economy and the state of unemployment have a huge impact on how people view the political debate,” Buchanan said.

Democratic House Majority leader Steny Hoyer argued the Massachusetts race revealed deep anxiety among Americans.

“People are angry; people are fearful; people are very concerned about where the economy is,” he said.

“We’re all pretty unpopular. Why? Because people don’t feel good and we’re the leaders and we’re in office and they expect us to do something about it.”

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