Alex Massie

Obama’s Momentum

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James fears that Barack Obama's healthcare reforms may be in trouble if he can't win enough Republican support to convince centrist voters. In other words, he'll be too much beholden to the left-wing of the Democratic party. Well, perhaps. But centrist voters in 2009 are rather to the left of where they were in 1993, the last time major health care reform was tried. Also: Obama is a better salesman than early-90s Hillary Clinton. Remember too, Obama won with more than half the vote; Clinton was elected merely by a plurality of punters.

Now it may be that the GOP's near-universal refusal to meet the new President half-way on the stimuls (though many more Republicans in Washington would, had it been a free and secret ballot have voted for the stimuls) will pay-off in the long run. But right now it is the Republican party, not the new President that is unpopular. Right now it is the President, not the opposition who has momentum on his side.

James is correct to say that in many ways Obama is a pretty conventional liberal, albeit one dressed in transformative clothes and armed with a rare combination of rhetoric and magnetism that makes even his less popular positions seem more palatable  -not just to supporters but also to opponents. But if America elected a conventional liberal then that too is part of George W Bush's legacy. In any case, having passed an enormous, unfunded, healthcare benefit themselves the GOP can hardly complain if the new administration does the same.

And the Medicare bill, though loathed by the few remaining fiscal hawks, was enormously popular. Republicans liked voting for it. Overall, polls show that the public is much, much more willing to countenance greater government involvement in healthcare than they were 15 years ago. Perhaps this counsel of despair is yet another example of what Bush hath wrought. Like all other foreign observers of American politics I am both baffled and bored by the healthcare debate and so tend to pay as little attention to it as possible. Yet I also know that it's a subject ordinary* Americans bring up with overseas reporters any time one asks them what domestic issues concern them most.

Equally, I suspect the financial crisis and the recession make it easier to sell a large-scale governmet intervention in healthcare, not more difficult. That's conjecture of course, but the public wants something to get done on healthcare.

For now, at least, the honeymoon persists. See this for example:

“It’s eerie — I read the news from the Beltway, and there’s this disconnect with the polls from the Midwest that I see all around me,” said Ann Seltzer, the authoritative Iowa pollster who works throughout the Midwest.

Quite so. No wonder the President has been on the road recently. Running against Washington - even when your party controls all of Washington - is always a pretty popular move. In this instance, mind you, it's also pretty audacious and suggests to me that Obama wants to build up his political capital in the countryside, not have Congress tell him how and where he can spend it. That is, create momentum and then bring legislation forward, not the other way round.

There will come a time when he loses some of these battles (and will deserve to lose some, if not many, of them) but as someone who wouldn't ordinarily vote for either the GOP or the Democrats, it seems pretty clear to me that the new President is still winning and the Republicans are still losing. Maybe the stimulus won't work, but what if it does? That seems a bigger risk for the GOP than anything Obama has done.

*According to standard journalistic practise, "ordinary" here means taxi drivers, hotel concierges and barmen.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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