Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The 'Change' That Voters Neither Believed Nor May Have Counted On Becoming Stark Reality

A 360 Degrees Perspective

Love or hate the country's new health care policy, this much is indisputable: President Obama accomplished a feat that had eluded presidents before him.

He persuaded a deeply divided Congress to pass sweeping legislation remaking one-sixth of the U.S. economy. He did it in a hypermedia world in a hyperpartisan city that he barely knew, that most people detest. He did it without most Americans supporting the plan.

But most of all, he brought change - as promised. But is it the kind Americans want?

Voters who complained they were sick of the status quo must now decide whether this is - to borrow Obama's campaign motto - the change they believe in.

That choice will be the basis on which the nation will judge Obama, from his first midterm elections this fall to his likely re-election campaign in 2012. From now until then, the president will try to convince a skeptical public that he's done the right thing.

"This is what change looks like," Obama said on the first day of the rest of his presidency.

Every president brings change to some degree, and politicians always throw around the word during times of great upheaval. But Obama is unusual.

"With him, it's not just change that he wants: It's transformational change to make society a fairer place," said Stanley Renshon, the head of the political psychology program at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

With health care, Renshon said, "he's forcing change that people don't want against their will." And, he said, backlash is possible if Obama is emboldened to push other big measures that divide the country, like immigration reform.

"Call it the audacity of transformation," added Renshon, who is writing a book on Obama.

Obama didn't create the call for change that he ran on in 2008. He seized it, tapping into people's angst as they tired of George W. Bush and Republican rule. The Democrat became the best messenger for change because people could attach their hopes to him, regardless of whether they agreed with the fine print.

"I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," Obama said in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Two years later, there was an inherent contradiction in his pitch. He promised policy changes ripped from the Democratic playbook. And he promised to be post-partisan. The two don't jibe; he opened the door to criticism and, it turned out, set the table for his first presidential year.

He repeatedly let down those who voted for him. He became the face of the city people abhor. On health care, he engaged in partisan wrangling that voters despise.

But he got it done.

Or, as he put it: "We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges. We proved that this government - a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people."

People may not see it that way.

"He promised two kinds of change," said Mary Stuckey, a Georgia State University professor of political science and communication. "The political change has taken a backseat to the policy change."

Indeed, while keeping his pledge to overhaul health care, he trampled on his other vow to break a decades-old partisan logjam, to do things differently in Washington. He maintained the appearance of bipartisanship - he held a meeting on the matter with Republicans and Democrats and included GOP amendments in the final measure - but, in the end, Republicans opposed the bill.

An AP-GfK Poll in January found that 55 percent said it was too soon to tell if Obama was keeping his promise to change the way things work in Washington -- the same as a year ago. Yet more than a quarter said he was breaking that promise. And 43 percent said Obama had kept only some of his promises, while 31 percent he had kept hardly any of them.

Republicans sense a political opening in such feelings.

"President Obama has betrayed his oath to the nation - rather than bringing us together, ushering in a new kind of politics, and rising above raw partisanship, he has succumbed to the lowest denominator of incumbent power: justifying the means by extolling the ends," chided Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor angling to challenge Obama in two years. "He promised better; we deserved better."

He promised change; we got change.

Like it or not. Now determine what you will do about it.

City University of New York Graduate Center; Georgia State University; Carl Vinson School of Law - University of Georgia.

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