Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Huffington Post Column 9 – What Did Massachusetts Really Mean?

Much, probably too much, has been made of the results of the election for the Senate seat that many of us thought Ted Kennedy would occupy forever, and definitely too much has been written about it. Nevertheless, I'll add my voice to the mass.

I've been a vocal Obama supporter from his entry into the race, and I remain so. At the same time, I wonder if, to use a phrase I first heard on The Daily Show, he might not be the victim of "the subtle racism of high expectations." (By the way, if you haven't seen Jon Stewart's mock interview with Larry Willmore about "Negroes aren't magic" you can find it here).

In point of fact, Obama has accomplished a great deal, much of it very important, in his first year, but he has not (a) passed universal health care, (b) turned the economy around on a dime, or (c) created 100% employment, none of which it was even remotely reasonable to think he would do, yet we thought it – maybe not all three, but many of us, myself included, thought one or two of those or expected other miracles.

At the same time, if you campaign on "the audacity of hope" and "change we can believe in," you have to be responsible for the expectations you create. We dared to hope for miracles, and we set the bar for change we could believe in at least at water from a rock, if not loaves and fishes.

However, that doesn't mean that we should lower our expectations or that the President should back off. Some say the Massachusetts vote was a repudiation of the President, but that's not what the polling says – it would be accurate, I think, to say that the vote was a vote against the status quo, a vote against the slow pace of economic change, a vote against joblessness, while the President remains personally popular. If anything, the message of the vote was "give us the change you promised."

Some say the vote was about health care, and it's true that Martha Coakley included support for the public option, while Scott Brown ran as the 41st vote against reform. As I write this I'm listening to Chris Matthews grilling Howard Dean on this issue and insist that the vote was an anti-health care vote, but in order to do that he is having to insist that it was a one-issue election, ignoring all the other issues. Polling indicates, however, that Obama voters who voted for Brown or who stayed home did so because they want stronger health care reform.

There are also Democratic voices now that are calling for the President to back off, to go slow. Nothing could be a worse course of action. If Obama is going to avoid a nationwide repeat of Massachusetts in November, he must lead and lead strongly. Pass health care with a public option by using reconciliation. Launch an all-out campaign to create jobs – push the unemployment rate below 5% by November by any means necessary. Shake up Homeland Security and make it effective, get a new TSA director who will transform it from Thousands Standing Around to an effective security agency.

In other words, Mr. President, translate the fire of the campaign that gave us hope into action that gives us change, and do it now. And the next person who compares you to Jimmy Carter? Take him to the woodshed on your own behalf and on behalf of your office. We need your leadership now more than ever.

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