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The difference a year makes

Published:Thursday | January 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Remember how choked up we all were a year ago? There was Barack Obama, the US's first black president and a man who heralded a transformation of America, maybe even the world, standing on the steps of the Capitol and taking the oath of office. Maybe, we allowed ourselves to dream, a new age might begin.

Well, pack that one up in the memory box. Stick it on the top shelf beside the dust-covered Walkmans and Betamax videos. Just as Americans once said the election of Barack Obama was tectonic, now they're saying the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts on Tuesday night was seismic (if they're cool on evolution, at least Americans seem to like geology).

The hyperbole does seem well placed. President Obama was encountering fierce opposition to his ambitious agenda - economic stimulus, health-care reform, renewable energy - but it was at least moving forward. Now, everything is in doubt.

A secure seat

The Massachusetts Senate seat was vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. To Democrats, the seat seemed to be as secure as they came. Massachusetts is a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly four to one, and where the Kennedys cast a long shadow in death as in life. Once she won the Democratic nomination, Martha Coakley must have figured her work was done.

But the Democrats missed something. They may outnumber Republicans in the state, but independents outnumber both. And the warnings we'd been hearing for months, that Obama was losing independents, was ignored until it was too late.

Worse, the anger stirred up by Obama's agenda created an intensity in Republican ranks that was not matched on his side of the divide: Democrats, particularly liberals and first-time voters, are disappointed with the Obama administration. So they stayed home, while Republicans and angry independents turned out.

It's not hard to see why. Obama heralded freshness and change in Washington. Then he appointed a Wall Street economic team that promised little change from the Bush years and cut back-room deals with old Democrat hands in Congress.

Obama was going to suffer a drop in popularity in his first year. Presidents who try to push through transformative agendas always do. If they stay the course, the nation sometimes comes around. But they have little time to act, since mid-term elections almost always deliver them setbacks.

Obama needed this Senate vote to push through his ambitious, unprecedented health-care reform programme. That is because the US Senate's peculiar rules allow its members to use procedural tactics to prevent bills coming to a vote. When the opposition is thereby 'filibustering', the Senate can still move 'cloture' to stop debate. But a cloture motion requires not just a majority of votes (51), but a super-majority of 60.

Changes will be demanded

As of Tuesday night, there are now 59 Democrats in the Senate. Although the Senate has passed the bill already, the House of Repre-sentatives - where the Democrats lean a bit further left than they do in the Senate - is likely to demand changes. The reconciliation process, whereby the two houses find common ground, would then produce a new bill. It is when that bill comes back to the Senate that the filibustering would begin.

The only chance the Democrats now have to pass a health-care reform bill is to either push the bill through Congress before Scott Brown takes his seat in the Senate; or get the House to pass the Senate bill.

At the moment, neither outcome looks likely. Obama is badly wounded. Now we'll really see if he has what it takes to be a great president.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an indepen-dent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to

Obama was going to suffer a drop in popularity in his first year. Presidents who try to push through transformative agendas always do.