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Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Clifford Orwin

Change, yes, but not the change Americans wanted Add to ...

Terra tremet: First Haiti quaked, then Massachusetts. Konrad Yakabuski said it here last Wednesday: One year into his first term, Barack Obama risks becoming a lame-duck President. Fresh out of his supporters' enthusiasm, he must struggle to reinvent his presidency in tonight's State of the Union address.

There are many reasons for Mr. Obama's near-death experience. The biggest, however, is that he misread the national mood. Having gained the presidency by defeating the lacklustre candidate of a discredited party, Mr. Obama mistook this for a mandate. American voters no longer confer mandates. They merely express their disgruntlement. They were fed up with Republicans, yes, but so were they with Democrats, especially congressional ones. They were fed up with politics as usual. Mr. Obama swept to victory by posing as the candidate of change.

Which he was, unfortunately for him. Mr. Obama had set his sights on the transformation of American society. For most Americans, however, change was a matter of how, not what. Social revolution was the last thing on their minds. They ascribed the failed policies of the Bush years to the glaring defects of a political process dominated by special interests and partisan bickering.

So what did Mr. Obama do? He poured kerosene on both. He rashly decided to pursue health-care reform as the entering wedge of an ambitious agenda. There's no more complex issue in American politics, none that engages so many contending vested interests, and none so certain to fuel partisan animosity. It's one hornet's nest after another. Since most Americans are quite satisfied with the quality of their health care and for that matter their health insurance, they feared to lose more from big changes than they hoped to gain from them. They never warmed to a 2,000-page bill that no one understood but few believed addressed the real problem - medical costs that are out of control.

Because Mr. Obama placed all his political eggs in the basket of resolving this mess, the how of Washington politics has stunk more noisomely than ever. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, nobody's notion of beacons of a new politics, were reduced to the most appalling shifts. Republicans wouldn't play ball with them on Mr. Obama's version of health-care reform, and moderate Democrats lacked all conviction. Hence the last straw of Mr. Reid's outrageous concessions to colleagues from Nebraska and Louisiana to buy their votes for the measure.

So yes, American voters wanted change, but erred in thinking Mr. Obama would bring the change they wanted. He erred in thinking that his was the change they wanted brought.

Health care was the wrong issue also because there was no short-term health-care crisis - only a long term (fiscal) one - while there was a raging recession. This is the issue that matters most to voters, and Mr. Obama has yet to impress them with his handling of it. No matter that he inherited 7.5-per-cent unemployment: it has risen to and remains stalled at 10 per cent. At that level, paternity ceases to matter. The white working class, which voted for Mr. Obama but has never loved him, is again in play. Scott Brown won Massachusetts as the smooth spokesman of its rough discontents.

Nor can Mr. Obama claim offsetting successes elsewhere. Americans feel not more but less secure from terrorism after his changes on that front. "Engagement" with Iran and the Muslim world generally has achieved precisely nothing. His halfhearted pursuit of the Afghan war has satisfied neither right nor left, while probably emboldening the Taliban. Among America's allies, the peoples may love Mr. Obama, but the governments smile and sit on their hands. As for greenness issues, they're browning rapidly, as even Democratic voters become increasingly skeptical of climate change. And will the master of the corporate bailout now take on the corporations? Mr. Obama's rhetorical cupboard seems bare.

Mr. Obama's main asset is the disarray of the Republicans. While they now have the additional Senate seat required to block his agenda, their support among voters remains feeble. This isn't 1994, the year the GOP regained control of Congress after 40 years in the wilderness. There's no Newt Gingrich, no "Contract with America" - just the discontent that beset George W. Bush, now transferred to Mr. Obama.

You hear that Mr. Obama will seek to beat his opponents at their own game by co-opting their populist rhetoric. (He's already taken up the cudgel against banks, an easy target and a deserving one.) His anger, however, has never been very terrible. (Perhaps he spent too many years among professors.) And since he can no longer hope to pass legislation (including on banking) without Republican co-operation, how mad can he afford to get?

So keep your fingers crossed for Mr. Obama as he approaches the rostrum tonight. However good the speech, he'll no longer be delivering it clad in magic. The nation has grown wary of fine speeches that too rarely result in accomplishments. He'll have little new to offer and nothing old that has worn well. He himself has aged noticeably during his year in office. He had hoped to use this occasion to celebrate the passage of his health-care act; will he now use it to plead for it? If so, not only Republicans will be disinclined to listen. Congressional Democrats, hearing footsteps come November and dogged by grim polling data, won't be cozying up either.

That it all could have gone so bad so quickly is fodder for a thousand columns. Mr. Obama's election, far from resolving the turbulent tectonics of American politics, now looks like just another burst of it. The plates they shift still.

Professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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