IN THE weeks following the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown in the January special election to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, the Obama administration and the Democrats appeared to be wandering around in a daze. With still large majorities in Congress, they looked hapless before an aggressive right-wing Republican rump that appeared to be setting the Washington agenda despite having been repudiated in two consecutive national elections.
Meanwhile, the media focused on Tea Party activists who, in the media’s portrayal, represented a grassroots “populism” against “big government.” Incredibly, at a time when neoliberal economics and Wall Street greed had driven the world economy off a cliff, “populist” sentiment and momentum were on the side of those who denounced as “socialism” even government help for the unemployed. For millions who had looked to Obama’s election as an end to a period of right-wing domination of national politics, all of this was cause for demoralization.
Yet by the end of March, the Democrats had reversed this narrative in the wake of their party-line passage through Congress of massive legislation overhauling the nation’s health care system. Within hours, it seemed, Obama and the Demcrats went from chumps to champs. New York Times columnist Frank Rich summarized the media turnaround:
Not since Clark Kent changed in a phone booth has there been an instant image makeover to match Barack Obama’s in the aftermath of his health care victory. “He went from Jimmy Carter to F.D.R. in just a fortnight,” said one of the “Game Change” authors, Mark Halperin, on MSNBC….
What a difference winning makes — especially in America. Whatever did (or didn’t) get into Obama’s Wheaties, this much is certain: No one is talking about the clout of Scott Brown or Rahm Emanuel any more.
But in the immediate aftermath of his health care victory, at least, there does seem to be real, not imagined, change in Obama’s management modus operandi. Whether challenging Karzai and Bibi, or pushing through 15 recess appointments, or taunting those who would repeal the health care law to “go for it,” this is a far more energized executive than the sometimes tentative technocrat we’ve often seen thus far. The pace has picked up — if not to faster-than-a-speeding-bullet Superman velocity, then at least as much as the inherent sclerosis of Washington will allow.
For the time being, the Democrats have stopped their free-fall, and the Republicans don’t look as if they are driving the debate on national politics in Washington. The GOP had staked its political strategy on turning the defeat of the health care bill into “Obama’s Waterloo,” as right-wing Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) famously said. Instead, as the conservative commentator David Frum wrote, “We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat… It’s Waterloo all right: ours.”
As Frum predicted, GOP bluster about repealing the health care bill subsided among Republican politicians campaigning for election in November. Railing about repealing the bill sounds good when one is speaking at a Tea Party rally. But actually voting to allow health insurance companies to continue their most egregious practices is a fast-track to electoral defeat.
As the health care debate came to its head, the congressional right and their Tea Party abettors were shown to have nothing to offer millions of Americans who are facing financial ruin today. What’s more, the ugly display of vitriol—when a few thousand tea party activists demonstrating outside the Capitol shouted racial and anti-gay epithets at members of Congress—exposed the ugly underbelly of their supposedly “grassroots” movement.
For the ruling class, Obama’s ability to push through the health bill proved that the Democratic majority could “govern.” That was the meaning of the “Obama as Superman” stories that spilled from the media. Given that vote of confidence from the top, Obama immediately used it to assert U.S. authority in Afghanistan, with his first visit there, and to reclaim business support for his energy policies, with announcements of support for expanded nuclear power and offshore oil drillling.
But for millions of ordinary people, including most of those who consider themselves progressives, the defeats dealt the conservatives rekindled a sense that the “change” Obama promised in 2008 was still attainable. For millions who have despaired as they watched the government shovel out billions of dollars to Wall Street speculators, the passage of health care reform and an expansion of Pell Grants for college students was greeted as “something” for people who have come to expect nothing—or at least nothing positive—from government.
To be sure, this boost in “hope” occurred almost entirely independently of the overall content of the health care bill as passed. While the legislation included important reforms that will be popular, it married them to a structure that further empowers the medical/industrial/insurance complex. (See Helen Redmond’s “Prescribing aspirin for cancer” that follows this article).
The political climate in spring isn’t necessarily predictive of what will happen in the fall midterm elections. In a volatile time where so many working people have had their lives upended with unemployment, foreclosures and government cutbacks, much can change in a few months. And even if the right is taking its knocks now, it still stands to gain from anti-incumbent sentiment that, according to polls, stands at record levels.
As the health care bill was making its way to final passage, important developments were taking place outside the Washington bubble. Thousands of activists had already decided that they couldn’t wait for Obama and the Democrats to act on the issues that concerned them.
On March 4, hundreds of thousands rallied across the country in defense of public education. A few weeks later, a march of 200,000 immigrant rights activists rallied in Washington to call for immigration reform. At several regional conferences of the newly formed Equality Across America, hundreds of young activists turned out to plan a national campaign to win full civil equality for LGBT people.
These efforts at organization and mobilization are crucial to keep the spectrum of acceptable debate on these issues from devolving into one of the far-right (GOP and Tea Party) vs. the center-right (Obama and the Democrats). And as these movements gather the kind of strength they need to pressure Washington, they shouldn’t accept excuses from Democrats who tell them that “now isn’t the time” to fight for what they want.