A lot of liberals are saying "I told you so" in the glum aftermath of the Massachusetts election, when the voters who propelled Barack Obama into office didn't show up at the polls or, if they did, cast their vote for the conservative in the race. A poll conducted immediately after the race by Research 2000 found that Obama voters who supported Republican Scott Brown said the Senate health-care bill "doesn't go far enough." Obama voters who stayed home agreed 6–1.
Turnout among young people was a pathetic 15 percent, echoing the dispirited mood that led to the Massachusetts shellacking. The candidate who only a year ago inspired the world had become a president without a defined mandate or image, in search of an elusive consensus with a political party that wants him to fail. Liberals have been called upon to make all the compromises while Obama spent his first year worshiping at the altar of bipartisanship. Now, with the voters rebelling, the time for reaching out to Republicans should be officially declared over.
"This is his Avatar moment," says John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies, looking ahead to next week's State of the Union address, when Obama has a chance to reset his agenda and reconnect with the voters who believed in him and have found his performance disappointing. The liberal Institute for Policy Studies gave Obama’s first year a C-minus, citing modest achievements in contrast to the transformative change he promised in his campaign.
Just as director James Cameron took a chance with stereoscopic filmmaking in his creation of a fictional universe, if Obama is to rescue his presidency, he needs to light the fire from his campaign and remind the voters why they elected him in the first place. He is still popular, but voters question his effectiveness. They see Wall Street and the banks rebound because of his policies, and it hasn't trickled down to them. And their lack of patience is taking a political toll.
Here is what liberals are looking for from Obama to herald in what they hope will be a very different second year:
More populist policies. Obama has finally begun taking on the banks like a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt. Liberals would cheer if Obama dumped his economic team of Wall Street insiders and installed Elizabeth Warren, the truth-telling Harvard professor who chairs the congressional oversight panel investing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Obama can steal the thunder back from the tea party movement with an economic populism that reflects liberal principles.
The vision thing. We thought this was Obama's strong suit, reaching the rhetorical highs and drawing everybody together in the service of American ideals. He's lost sight of that in the press of business, and the State of the Union is his opportunity to recast his first year in big-picture terms and explain how that vision translates into combating unemployment, bashing bankers, and extending health-care coverage. This is an opportunity to address his domestic agenda with the same passion and intellect he brought to discussing the just war, reaching out to the Muslim world, and addressing the race issue when the fate of his campaign was at stake.
Reestablish what makes him different. Voters are beyond angry; they are in a white fury over the business-as-usual way of operating in Washington. Senator-elect Scott Brown summed it up in his morning-after press conference, referring to the special deals made to win Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson's vote for health-care reform and court support from union leaders, at the expense of Americans who don't live in Nebraska or belong to a union. Obama's appeal during the campaign transcended left-right politics, with voters believing that as president he would pursue an approach that would be very different from politics as usual. "The most important thing for the president is to vindicate that he is still that same person," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. Obama should acknowledge that transformational change is not easy, and he should enlist voters in the effort, the way he did during the campaign. This was supposed to be an administration that was more engaged with the voters. What happened with that?
Play "guts ball." Defining the differences between Republicans and Democrats is not Obama's comfort zone. He's trying to be a post-partisan president, but it's gotten him nothing but a year of heartache, while Republicans pay no price for blocking him at every turn. With 59 Democratic votes in the Senate, Obama ought to be able to govern. "Let them filibuster," says Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who thinks Republicans should be held to the rules and made to talk continuously around the clock. "If we roll up our sleeves and play guts ball, we can win," says Rendell, who believes Americans would side with Obama. He likens it to the government shutdown of 1995 that grew out of a budget dispute between President Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich. Clinton stood firm and the public backed him, forcing Gingrich to capitulate. It was a clash worthy of Avatar, and a reminder of how far a little backbone can go, with voters raging at spineless bureaucrats and elected officials.