Perhaps the most important question about the game-changing election returns in Massachusetts is how they reflect on the Democratic-controlled Congress and on the president.
It's true that Martha Coakley was a rather uninspiring candidate, and if she were running in any other state -- or for any other Senate seat -- her failure may be explained away fairly easily. But the pre-election polling seemed to suggest that many Massachusetts residents were deeply opposed to the health care reform bill, worried about the cost of health care reform generally, and doubtful that Coakley would have shown any political independence in representing her constituents.
Even as Scott Brown charged ahead of Coakley in the polls, Coakley's positives continued to outweighed her negatives. This suggests that Coakley's lackluster campaign was not her only electoral problem. National issues likely had a large influence on the final results.
So, what's really going on here? Was this a referendum on the president's agenda?
Hard to say. It's true that President Obama still maintains majority approval in Massachusetts, but many aspects of his platform are rapidly losing support in the Bay State and in the country as a whole. Nationally, the president's approval ratings are slipping as Americans on both sides of the political divide seem to be disillusioned with his performance.
(Although, it's still important to look at Obama's approval ratings in historical context.)
Conor Friedersdorf considers the reasons why President Obama seems to be losing support:
On the campaign trail . . . Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.
Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.
When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?
Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings. So it goes.
I think Conor makes a good point. But I also believe that the problem is much larger, and has a lot more to do with human psychology.
Ross Douthat argues that President Obama's aggressive pursuance of a liberal agenda has turned some Americans against him. But on any given day, a Daily Kos blogger will argue that the President's conservative agenda -- or, at least, his deference to conservatives -- is what's causing all our problems.
Many party-line Democrats with whom I talk are extremely frustrated with the president for failing to deliver on what they viewed as his promise to transform the United States into a more progressive country. Meanwhile, conservatives seem convinced that President Obama is the most liberal president in history, and is actively transforming the United States into a more progressive country.
So, what's the real issue? Why do Americans on both sides seem to be rebelling against President Obama? Is all of this hostility toward the president really just a reflection of intellectual biases run wild?
As Morton Hunt once wrote in The Universe Within:
Most human beings earn a failing grade in elementary logic. We're not just frequently incompetent [in thinking logically], we're also willfully and skillfully illogical. When a piece of deductive reasoning leads to a conclusion we don't like, we often rebut it with irrelevancies and sophistries of which, instead of being ashamed, we act proud.
In my view, it's not just logical reasoning that we need. It's the ability to tell ourselves that we are biased creatures. The world is far more complex than our perceptions allow us to grasp.
I think we need to stop convincing ourselves that our intellectual opponents have nothing to offer but discredited ideals. We need to stop convincing ourselves that we're always right.