At first glance, it would appear that Scott Brown’s unlikely victory is bad news for President Obama’s long-term political future. Senator-elect Brown explicitly ran against the current health care reform bill, favoring federalist experimentation rather than a one-size-fits-all national approach. As health care reform was the central focus of President Obama’s first year in office, and Massachusettes is one of the most liberal states in the country, Brown’s victory there is a clear repudiation of the leadership of President Obama and Congressional Democrats during the past year. Nevertheless, I think a case could be made that Scott Brown’s victory will help the President in the long run. There are three main reasons:
1) Brown’s victory was too stunning to ignore. No one would have predicted it even a month ago, and I was still skeptical yesterday that Massachusetts was going to elect a Republican senator for the first time since 1972 – and to replace Ted Kennedy, of all people. Congressional Democratic leadership and the Administration will no longer be able to convince Blue Dog Democrats they know best and that Obama will be able to leverage his popularity to preserve their seats. That card has been played – not only in Massachusetts, but also in Virginia and New Jersey – and it wasn’t a winner. This means that the Administration and the Congressional leadership will have to adjust their strategy, and pay more attention to voter sentiment. It’s probably too late at this point for this to help the Democrats much in November; they will take a well-deserved beating in this election. Nevertheless, it’s a lesson the Obama Administration will keep in mind going forward, just as the Clinton Administration pivoted after the Hillarycare debacle. President Obama will be forced to govern more like the moderate, fiscally responsible Democrat he campaigned as. And that is likely to increase his odds of re-election.
2) Voter sentiment moves in cycles. At this point it is possible, if not likely, that Republicans will retake the House. Either way, the November elections will be interpreted as a repudiation of the Democrats and Democratic leadership. This is not surprising, however it is possible that the anti-Democrat sentiment will be spent not long after the election. Republicans are still unpopular after the Bush years. If/when the economy improves later in 2010 and throughout 2011 (and if Obama governs more as a moderate), the resistance to him among Independents (although certainly not Republican partisans) is likely to wane.
3) President Obama is still personally quite popular. People like Obama. What they don’t like is the health care bill or the state of the economy. Health care will go away at some point; the economy (hopefully for all of us) will improve. And Obama will still be Obama; a talented politician who is capable of appearing likable, reasonable and non-ideological to a large segment of the American populace. Obama’s personal popularity, combined with a more poll-centric approach to governance, and an improving economy are likely to help him in 2012, provided he and his team make the necessary adjustments.
Naturally, the analysis above could be quite wrong. Things change quickly in politics (e.g. imagine writing predictions about the Coakley-Brown race in November when she was up 30). There could be a double-dip recession. Scandal could engulf the Administration. There could be a dramatic foreign policy event. But it seems most likely to me that the Scott Brown victory will help, rather than hurt President Obama in the long run. As someone who is deeply concerned about judicial appointments, I hope I’m wrong about this, but it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility.