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POLITICS-US: By-election Seen as Rebuke to Obama

Analysis by Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 2010 (IPS) - Tuesday’s loss by the Democrats of their 60th Senate seat has raised serious questions about the outlook for the White House’s policy agenda and spurred a rash of finger-pointing among Democrats over who bears responsibility for the very public rebuke issued by Massachusetts voters.

The loss by Democrat Martha Coakley to her Republican opponent, Scott Brown, cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and came on the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Particularly biting was the fact that the loss came in a special election for the senate seat vacated by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy – a politician believed by many to be the embodiment of progressive Democrats and a longtime champion of healthcare reform – upon his death.

The majority held by Democrats in the Senate was seen as the lynchpin in the White House’s efforts to push a domestic agenda that included healthcare reform, cap and trade climate legislation, and further regulation of financial markets.

Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts – a state generally believed to be a Democratic stronghold – is being widely attributed to the lacklustre popularity of the Democrats’ policy agenda, as well as Martha Coakley’s failure to offer a counter narrative to Brown’s framing of the campaign as a one-year referendum on the Obama White House, and the White House’s failure to send the president to Massachusetts to campaign and fundraise earlier in the race.,

Coakley’s defeat in Massachusetts is the latest low point in a year which has left many Democrats increasingly despondent and frustrated with the administration’s failure to deliver on its major campaign promises.

At the heart of the White House’s agenda is the healthcare bill, which is widely believed to ride on the Democrats holding 60 votes in the Senate.

The Democrats held the 60 votes required for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but the death of Massachusetts Senator Teddy Kennedy and his replacement by a Republican casts serious doubts about the Democrats’ ability to pass more comprehensive healthcare reform.

Brown ostensibly picked up on Republican and independent dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ healthcare plan and built a coalition of support in Massachusetts, bolstered in no small part by a drop in Obama’s and the Democratic-held House and Senate’s approval numbers.

”Yes, a less inept candidate might have beaten Scott Brown, but if Obama and his programme had been more popular in Massachusetts, even Coakley could have won – and by ten points or more,” wrote John B. Judis in the New Republic.

A Jan. 17 poll found that 20 percent of those polled in Massachusetts who voted for Obama planned to vote for Brown. Among those who planned to vote for Brown, only 22 percent approved of Obama’s presidency and 13 percent supported his healthcare plan.

The blowback against the Democrats’ push for comprehensive healthcare reform played no small part in the loss of their sixtieth Senate seat, but other analysts have pointed their fingers at the White House for failing to grasp the closeness of the race in Massachusetts and the growing surge of support behind Brown’s candidacy.

On Sunday, Obama made his one and only trip up to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University, blamed the loss on the White House’s failure to counter a growing Republican Party movement to derail the Democrats’ policy agenda.

”The Obama administration ran a great campaign, and did an excellent job of framing issues and defining their candidate throughout 2008. Once in office, however, they turned immediately from politics to policy – and there is a difference – while the GOP did exactly the reverse,” Walt wrote on his blog.

”Instead of continuing to frame issues and establish a clear narrative about what they were accomplishing, the Dems have let the GOP attack machine construct a wholly fictitious but effective narrative that clearly helped Brown in Massachusetts.”

Obama acknowledged that he held some responsibility for the loss on Wednesday and that his administration had lost touch with the U.S. public.

“If there’s one thing that I regret this year is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” Obama told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos Wednesday.

Frustration among Democrats has mounted as the White House appears paralysed by the foreign policy challenges – particularly the war in Afghanistan and failed attempts to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations – and a domestic political agenda increasingly defined by the White House’s inability to pass healthcare reform legislation.

Brown’s victory Tuesday served as a capstone for a year that started with Obama’s inauguration with an approval rating of 62 percent, and Democratic control of the House and Senate, but ended with the Democratic loss of its filibuster blocking seat in the Senate, a stalled foreign and domestic political agenda and Obama’s approval rating hovering around at 50 percent.

While analysts try to comprehend the fallout from the Massachusetts election, Democrats are scrambling to assign blame for Coakley’s loss.

Conservative Democrat Lanny J. Davis pointed the finger at left-wing Democrats.

”Bottom line: We liberals need to reclaim the Democratic Party with the New Democrat positions of Bill Clinton and the New Politics/bipartisan aspirations of Barack Obama – a party that is willing to meet half-way with conservatives and Republicans even if that means only step-by-step reforms on health care and other issues that do not necessarily involve big-government solutions,” wrote Davis in the Wall Street Journal.

But Robert Borosage, president of the left-leaning Institute for America’s Future, hit back on his organisation’s blog, writing, ”Let’s see. Obama packs his White House and economic team with former Clintonistas; devotes one-third of his stimulus plan to ineffective tax cuts; rescues the banks without reorganising them; wastes months seeking bipartisan support on health care, jettisoning the public option along the way and insisting on taxing health care benefits rather than the wealthy – and the ‘left’ is to blame?”

Over the coming days, Obama will need to carefully rethink his policy agenda after the stiff rebuke his administration received Tuesday from Massachusetts’s voters.

But right now the Democrats are left licking their wounds and trying to assess why their overwhelming political mandate of one year ago appears to be showing signs of crumbling.

Tuesday, when pressed by reporters, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs summarised Obama’s response to the increasingly close race in Massachusetts: ”Not pleased.”

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