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Comity of Errors

Obama's big mistake? Trying to bring the country together.

WASHINGTON--It turns out there were core contradictions in the promises Barack Obama made to the country in 2008. They caught up with his party on Tuesday in Massachusetts.

Things will not get easier. Republicans in Congress will be empowered to hold to their course of obstruction by Sen.-elect Scott Brown's victory. Washington will remain the object of scorn as a dysfunctional capital, and absent a new Obama approach, the GOP can act with the confidence that only Democrats will pay a price for the failure of comity.

This problem goes directly to the tensions in Obamaism. As a candidate, he pledged to change the tone in Washington and restore amicable relations between the parties. But he also promised to accomplish large things, including a substantial reform of the health care system, major action to ease global warming, and a reshaped and more responsible financial system.

At some point, Obama's ambitions were destined to collide with the views of a Republican Party fundamentally opposed to almost everything he wants to do. Obama could try to get big things done or he could work easily with Republicans, but he could not do both.

As a result, he found himself leaning entirely on support from within his own party, forcing a strategy of inside deal-making. This alienated Democrats from the many rank-and-file Americans who don't like the looks of such arrangements, however necessary they are.

A related contradiction was between Obama's commitment to sweeping change and his soothing pragmatism that disdains public fights. In the campaign, this allowed him to unite a left that believed in his promises of transformation and a center that appreciated his conciliatory style.

In practice, this meant trying to reform the financial industry while avoiding an open battle with the bankers. As a consequence, Obama is now viewed as coddling Wall Street by those inclined to populism, and as anti-business by the titans of finance. This also involved pursuing a health reform plan that his political base came to see as too soft on the insurance companies, even as many of the heath care interests tried to bring it down.

And by avoiding arguments over philosophy and ideology--by failing to offer a pointed and running explanation of why he was reversing the policies of the previous administration--Obama left independent voters confused about his goals. They saw expanding deficits and high unemployment. Absent a coherent Democratic narrative, they were open to a Republican story that linked the two and blamed the Democrats.

Brown's victory is also a rebuke to a United States Senate that acted as if it had unlimited time to pass health care legislation and ignored how foolish its listless ways appear to normal human beings. Like a bottle of milk kept out of the refrigerator too long, the health bill came to look curdled and sour to a public that felt it never heard an adequate explanation of what was in it.

In the short term, Democrats have to make a quick decision on health care. It would be the equivalent of a political crime to have invested so much in health reform only to let it die because of one election in one state. But on Wednesday, a cacophony of party voices was sending wildly mixed messages about how they should proceed.

The once obvious path would be for the House to pass the Senate bill while reaching agreement on changes to it that could clear the Senate without requiring 60 votes. But judging from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comments on Thursday, that path now seems blocked. Many progressive House members remain upset that the president took them for granted and assumed that the Senate, whose delays helped jeopardize health reform, would write something close to the final bill. Working through this thicket of dysfunction will be Obama's first post-Massachusetts test.

It's true that one special election in Massachusetts is not a world historical event. Brown's five-point victory was made possible by Democrat Martha Coakley's poorly run campaign and a colossal strategic failure to see early on the danger she was in.

Yet the flight or demobilization of so many of Obama's former supporters--Coakley received roughly 850,000 fewer votes on Tuesday than Obama did in 2008--cannot be blamed on her shortcomings alone. Obama needs to resolve the contradictions that are plaguing him, and to come out fighting. The president may not be entirely comfortable with this, but now he's fighting for his political life.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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