Friday, January 22, 2010

One year on: Obama’s anniversary challenges

Much of the focus on President Obama’s one-year anniversary in the White House, on Wednesday, centered on retrospective views timed to the day he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. It’s a ritual of the calendar and the media: the customary polls assessing his performance in office; the ritual scorecards of “promises kept” and “promises broken”; the pat “report cards”; the hierophants in the punditburo about Obama’s future prospects and those of the Democrats in this election year.

The real events that both mark his first year in office and offer a forecast to the three years remaining didn’t dovetail with the anniversary. One occurred the day before, the other one a few days later. Both of these Richter-scale events underscore the unpredictable nature of our politics. Both could be bellwethers for Democratic prospects in 2010, Obama’s presidential prospects in 2012, and other campaigns into the indefinite future.

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The first happened on Tuesday, when Scott Brown, a little-known Massachusetts Republican state senator, defeated his Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, to deliver unto the Republicans the seat in the United States Senate occupied for 47 years by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, moral conscience of the Senate.

Besides being a response to Coakley as a candidate — one who by all assessments ran a feckless, half-hearted campaign — the Brown win was seen as a message to the White House that the GOP could penetrate an historically reliable Democratic stronghold.

Brown tapped into public anger about the bank bailouts, proposed changes in U.S. health care, and a generalized fear about the size of the federal government and its role in everyday American lives. With a populist campaign that featured Brown sprinting from town to town driving a truck and wearing blue jeans and a barn coat instead of a suit and tie, Brown successfully adopted the grassroots outsider meme that Obama himself used to great effect in the 2008 presidential run (right down to a slight variation of the font Obama used in his campaign logos and branding all of 2008).

The result is a likely challenge to the Obama health-care agenda that’s hanging on by a thread in Congress, and a certain revival of Republican swagger and confidence in that party’s prospects for 2010 and beyond.

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The second and more serious pushback against the Obama agenda happened on Thursday. In a decision that threatens to permanently transform the ground game of American politics, the United States Supreme Court, 5-4, ruled that corporations, like individual American citizens, could make unlimited contributions to political campaigns in order to influence politicians.

In its decision, the Court purported to hew to the free-speech principles enshrined in the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority: “The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.”

Justices Roberts and Alito wrote, in a concurrence: “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer.”

The decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, effectively overturned 103 years of settled law, and was a direct indicator that the court meant to put citizens and corporations on equal existential footing.

It sent the signal that the battle between Wall Street and Main Street — between the interests of deep-pocketed corporation and those of everyday people — has been fully joined by the most toweringly dangerous, thunderously insensitive Supreme Court ruling since Dred Scott.

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Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissenters, framed the stakes of the decision: “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. ...

“The Court’s blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process. Americans may be forgiven if they do not feel the Court has advanced the cause of self-government today.“

Some in Congress get the gravity of what just happened. On Thursday, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, vowed that the House of representatives would do what it could do “to prevent the drowning of American democracy in corporate dollars.”

Others are less hopeful. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told MSNBC on Friday: “Just as both parties were beginning to successfully adopt the bottom-up, people-centered, democracy-strengthening model of politics of the new Internet age, the Supreme Court blows the system to pieces. The decision will no doubt tilt a system that was evolving into a more people-based model back towards one where privilege and money will have more sway.”

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As Obama retools himself and his administration for the future — we’ll get the details of that process in the State of the Union address on Wednesday — these two seismic political events will be as unmistakable a wake-up call as Team Obama could ask for.

The Coakley embarrassment should send a signal that, a year after inauguration, the usual metrics of reliable Democratic enclaves could be called into question. In much the same way Obama did last year when he won in GOP-safe states like Ohio and Florida, upending old assumptions about who votes for which party, the Brown victory makes clear that the old expectations don’t necessarily obtain. The message to Coakley on Tuesday was as clear as it is to Obama for the next three years: Nothing was delivered; this isn’t the change we voted for.

And the corrosive SCOTUS ruling is a warning that big-moneyed interests (represented, ironically enough, by the Supreme Court) will be arrayed in future campaigns as a counter to the ad hoc populist fundraising whose viral reach made the Obama campaign financially possible.

The ruling, rolling back campaign finance laws to boost corporate influence in the political debate, has the potential to infect every aspect of the nation’s political life from now on — a huge problem for the future Obama presidential campaign and its grassroots appeals. It’ll certainly mean that Team Obama will have to work harder to achieve the viral grassroots fundraising success of 2008.

In fact, all future campaigns will have to recalibrate their fundraising strategies to account for a possible flood tide of dollars from corporate coffers — a fundamental subversion of the small-d democratic process.

President Obama’s one-year anniversary in the White House marks Day One of the arrival of a new set of political challenges. The future of his presidential prospects, and maybe the future of our prospects as a democracy animated by citizens and not corporations, depends on how he answers the bell.

Image credits: Obama: AP/Charles Dharapak. Brown: Public domain.

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