Loss in Massachusetts: Ominous Sign for Obama?

In politics things are never as good as they seem and they are never as bad as they seem. Who would have thought that just a year after President Obama’s swearing in the National Mall, Washington D.C., a Republican who is an anti-thesis of almost everything that the late Senator Ted Kennedy stood for will win the vacated senatorial seat in the state of Massachusetts? But that’s what has happened on January 19 when Scott Brown, a Republican state senator for only five years, shocked and humiliated the White House and the Democratic Party establishment by defeating Martha Coakley in the race for the U.S. Senate seat.

It is really a shocking result considering the fact that states do not become more Democratic than Massachusetts, the only one that voted for George McGovern over President Richard Nixon in 1972. In this state, Mr. Obama won in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote. Now that very blue state has challenged the legacy of Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal icon who had held the contested seat for 46 years before his death. The Republican victory could only be daunting to the liberal and left. What a contrast with the liberal lion in the Senate? Mr. Brown supports water-boarding as an interrogation technique for terrorism suspects, opposes a federal cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions and opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants unless they leave the country.

Is this poll result a repudiation of President Obama or his policy or both? Ms. Coakley lost in no small part because of what many Democrats viewed as a lousy campaign against a sharp and focused opponent. She seemed to have the public persona of a flounder. Even the last minute appearance by Obama on Sunday could not rescue her from voter dissatisfaction with her. The lack of enthusiasm and turn-out among Democrats and Independents, in contrast to large turn out amongst the Republicans, contributed to her loss. David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, did not view the results as a repudiation of the White House’s agenda, but he acknowledged that the administration needed to do a more effective job of signaling concern about the problems gripping Americans, for instance, unemployment rate.

As the unemployment rate climbed up from 7.5% to 10% in the last 12 months, so did Obama’s disapproval rating from 12% to 44%. There is such a strong R-square (90%) fit between the response variable and the predictor –” unemployment rate, no analyst can ignore the obvious cause for Obama’s disapproval rate. As noted recently by George Will, the underemployment rate –” the unemployed, plus those employed part time, plus those discouraged persons who have stopped looking jobs — is actually much higher; it’s 17.3%. Almost 40% of the unemployed have been so for more than seven months or more (Newsweek, January 25, ’09). Bottom line: as long as the unemployment rate and underemployment rate remain high the presidential approval rate will suffer.

Since the recession began in December 2007, during the Bush era of mismanagement and colossal crime and stupidity, Congress has passed two stimulus packages – $168 billion in February 2008 and $787 billion in February 2009. Last month, Congress also passed a $154 billion jobs bill. While these have helped the economy to slightly grow in the last six months, the job creation has been very sluggish and disappointing, which is hurting most Americans.

Some Republicans would say that the election result was all about sending a clear message to the White House that the American people are tired of Obama and his policies – the "changes" he has been preaching. They want their kind of changes. Republicans want a smaller government, which as we have seen before is incapable of fulfilling public’s trust in terms of ensuring government regulations, law and order, except, of course, national security where they are penny-wise and pound-foolish. They created the current financial crisis and yet don’t want the government to fix it. They don’t want Obama to tax the banks to pay for the bailout. They don’t like getting out of Afghanistan; they want to stay the course, just like their Senator-elect Brown. Oddly, they don’t want to cut the budget; but they want to stop spending except, of course, when it comes to the troops, who need all the support we can give them! So, how does one balance the budget? You do the math. I guess, you need a voodoo economist to balance the budget!

Americans are still paying down their debts that fueled the consumption during the Bush-Cheney era between 2001 and 2007, before the recession hit. Household debt is still 30% above what it was a decade ago, and 23% of homeowners with mortgages now have homes whose values are less than the amount owed on the mortgages. According to George Will, in 2015 interest payment on the national debt will require a sum equal to one-third of income tax revenues ($533 billion). That is the pathetic state of largest capitalist economy in the world! As its economy falters so would its political empire crumble, unless, of course, the right fixes are found to stop the bleeding process. The sooner the better!

Many believe that the Massachusetts election result was a reflection of the mood of the voters who were tired of rising taxes in a recession year. Massachusetts is not unique with its own state problem. States are not getting federal bail-out money for their pathetic economic condition. Most states are knee-deep in debt, and are trying to function via rising taxes which hurt the electorates. That was the root cause which contributed earlier to the defeat of two Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. Voters like services without having to pay for those. They hate raising taxes.

Healthcare Bill

Whatever the case may be, the worst casualty in this election result seems to be the health care bill overhauling the nation’s health care system, which the late Senator Kennedy had called "the cause of my life." Stripped of the 60th vote needed to block Republican filibusters in the Senate, some Democrats themselves (including Speaker Pelosi) are not sure any more if the Senate bill would pass in the Congress. Some believe that more bipartisanship will be required with the Republican naysayers in an effort to move legislation through Congress.

The bill is now a centrist document, very similar to the one passed in Massachusetts few years ago by the then Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican. Even then the Republicans are now dead-set to oppose the bill so that Democrats are denied the success in passing the historic bill. Politics is a nasty thing even in the USA. Still the Democrats can’t give up the health care bill issue for that would be a political folly, as noted by economist Paul Krugman. Their abandonment of the issue will make them appear like sore losers, ineffectual and hapless. They must note that the horrors of health insurance –” outrageous premiums, coverage denied to those who need it most and dropped when you actually get sick –” will get only worse if reform fails, and insurance companies know that they’re off the hook. And voters will blame politicians who, when they had a chance to do something, made excuses instead. The Democrats in the Capitol Hill, who are still a solid majority, simply can’t afford a failure on this vital issue. They must try to pass the bill.

Tea Party

Beyond the bill, the election of a man supported by the Tea Party movement, promoted by the right-wing conservative Fox News, also represented an unexpected reproach by many voters to President Obama after his first year in office. Most of those associated with the movement are either closet or overt racists who hate to see a Black American in the White House. They can’t say it aloud but are doing everything that is possible to steer opposition for everything that Obama stands for. These are ominous signs for America, where race still matters.

Guantanamo Bay

Just like the healthcare issue and the senatorial election, too many things are not going right for the Obama Administration. It’s failing its liberal support base and also the centrists, the independents, with unfulfilled promises. A year after his inauguration and executive order outlawing torture, the Guantanamo Bay prison remains open with some 200 detainees.[1] His administration has recently decided to continue to imprison without trials nearly 50 detainees because a high-level task force has concluded that they are too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release. The Obama administration has also decided that nearly 40 other detainees should be prosecuted for terrorism or related war crimes. And the remaining 110 or so prisoners should be repatriated or transferred to other countries for possible release. In the aftermath of failed bombing attempt of an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas the administration recently halted transfer of Yemeni detainees to Yemen because it believed that the bombing plot was developed by an affiliate of al-Qaeda that is based in Yemen.[2]

In the meantime, the Guantanamo detainees continue to be abused, and their treatment fails to meet the minimum standards of humane treatment mandated by the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (the so-called McCain amendment), United States and international law, or even Mr. Obama’s executive order. For example, an appendix to the Army Field Manual allows the military to keep a detainee in "separation" –” solitary confinement –” indefinitely. It requires only that a general approve any extension after 30 days. As noted by Matthew Alexander, author of "How to Break a Terrorist," even the initial 30 days of isolation could be considered abusive.

The Army Field Manual also does not explicitly prohibit stress positions, putting detainees into close confinement or environmental manipulation (other than hypothermia and "heat injury"). These omissions open a window of opportunity for abuse. The manual also allows limiting detainees to just four hours of sleep in 24 hours. Noting that most detainees have been held at Guantánamo Bay for seven years, four hours of sleep a night does not meet the minimum standard of humane treatment, either in terms of American law or simple human decency.[3] Alexander notes, "And if this weren’t enough, some interrogators feel the manual’s language gives them a loophole that allows them to give a detainee four hours of sleep and then conduct a 20-hour interrogation, after which they can "reset" the clock and begin another 20-hour interrogation followed by four hours of sleep. This is inconsistent with the spirit of the reforms." As can be seen, such measures only help to turn an innocent detainee when released into a terrorist, let alone help recruit others to the al Qaeda cause.

Murder and not Suicide of Detainees

New evidence has also emerged suggesting that three Guantánamo prisoners – none of them al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters — whom the US claims took their own lives in June 9, 2006 died not from suicide, but torture. Interestingly, the Bush administration had decided to release all three of them before they were murdered. From the very outset the news of suicide did not make sense to most Muslims who consider suicide as the worst of sins. A six-month investigation by Harper’s Magazine now indicates that the three prisoners – Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, Salah Ahmed Al-Salami and Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi – were suffocated and tortured during questioning at a secret black site facility at Guantánamo known as "Camp No."[4] At the time, the commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, lied when describing their deaths as an "act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us." Quickly the Justice Department also tried to hush up the case. What is more troublesome: when the Obama administration was notified about this, it engaged in a further cover-up, claiming to conduct an investigation, but concluded that it would not open a criminal investigation before it even contacted the critical witnesses here. In his interview with Democracy Now, as noted by attorney and international law expert Scott Horton, the author of the article in the Harper’s Magazine, President Barack Obama is not upholding the pledge he made when he received the Nobel Prize to enforce the Geneva Conventions.[5]

Campaign Funding

In recent years, since at least the Swift-boating of Senator Kerry, campaign funding has become a matter of major concern for most voters who believe that special interest groups could decide the outcome of an election. On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend freely in federal elections. This decision at the apex court, overturning a 20-year precedent that corporations could not pay for campaign ads from their general treasuries, now gives the lobbyists of special interest money even more power than what they already had in Washington. Now, every candidate who fights for change could face limitless attacks from corporate special interests.

It goes without saying that with no limits on their spending, big oil, Wall Street banks, and health insurance companies will try to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. Historically, the Republicans which prefer less government oversight, have been favored by Corporate America and big-spending, large interest groups. With this Supreme Court decision, American politics will be more solidly defined and controlled by these powerful interest groups.

None of these outcomes –” from the loss in Massachusetts to the revelation of cover-up with the murder of detainees, albeit by the past Republican administration, at the Guantanamo Bay prison to the latest Supreme Court decision on campaign funding –” is what the Obama Administration has hoped for as it moved into the second year. The Republicans seem ecstatic and energized. They see a change in the making, a rebirth of new Republicanism. But for the Obama administration not all is lost yet. The next mid-term election is more than nine months away. It has to simply reinvigorate its support base by delivering on the promises it made, starting with the Guantanamo Bay Prison, and stopping the torture of detainees –” the very first executive order — it issued merely a year ago.


[1]. http://tinyurl.com/yektfrs

[2]. http://tinyurl.com/ydgwwr5

[3]. http://tinyurl.com/y97xdp7

[4]. Harper’s Magazine, "The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle." See also: http://tinyurl.com/ykjnc7c

[5]. http://tinyurl.com/ykjnc7c