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Obama team too busy spinning to listen

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Obama Administration's spin machine is working overtime, Ruben Navarrette observes
  • Navarrette: Obama's health push seems to have been a drag on Martha Coakley
  • Some liberals and moderates seem to have buyer's remorse with Obama, he says
  • If Obama team doesn't learn to listen better, the spinning will continue, Navarrette warns

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Contact him here

San Diego, California (CNN) -- If the Obama White House was as good at listening to voters' concerns and adjusting their policy goals accordingly as they are at spinning Democratic losses in an attempt to contain the damage, they would probably have fewer losses to spin.

Martha Coakley's hopes of representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate weren't even cold before the administration's surrogates were saying how Coakley was a weak candidate, how the election was really about local issues with no bearing on the national political landscape, how this defeat was really part of national anti-incumbency tsunami and how this was most certainly not a referendum on either President Obama's policies in general or health care reform in particular.

Don't believe a word of it -- although some of it does sound familiar.

We heard the same thing about weak candidates and elections turning on local issues last year when Republicans won gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Just how many Democrats fit under the bus?

In the Obama White House, if you lose an election, you only have yourself to blame. This president is only responsible for victory. And so, naturally, the narrative coming from hardcore Democrats is Coakley was a drag on the administration's policy and that she did a lousy job of "communicating" the message of why the country needs health care reform.

The opposite seems to be true. Obama and his push for a government takeover of the health care system seems to have been a drag on Coakley.

According to one poll taken just a few days before the election, as many as 20 percent of those supporting Republican Scott Brown had also voted for Barack Obama in 2008. That makes sense, doesn't it?

In a dark blue state such as Massachusetts, a Republican doesn't win a Senate seat -- let alone, in a phrase that the media used a lot and Brown used to his advantage, "Ted Kennedy's Senate seat" -- without winning over a good chunk of Democrats and independents.

And speaking of this being thought of by some as Ted Kennedy's seat, Brown was able to flip that on its head and remind voters that the seat isn't something that Kennedys or Democrats are entitled to but that's it's "the people's seat."

Judging from the reaction of crowds whenever the Republican said that, that was political gold. Thankfully, many Americans have grown weary of those who feel entitled to anything.

So when Coakley said she would rather not stand outside Fenway Park in the cold shaking hands and looking for votes, voters delivered a rebuke with the ferocity of a Curt Schilling fastball.

That reminds me. Coakley meet Curt Schilling, former Red Sox pitching ace and not a Yankees fan. Voters also aren't too fond of snobby elitists.

So when President Obama flew up to Massachusetts the weekend before the election and appeared to mock the idea that Brown had marketed himself as a regular guy who drives a truck -- "anyone can buy a truck," said Obama -- voters instinctively sided with the guy in the truck over the guy who made more than $4 million in book royalties before even becoming president.

What happened in Massachusetts is not a tale that can be told in red-and-blue. Forget the right-wing conservatives. Put them aside. They didn't like Obama from the beginning, and they like him even less now that they've seen him govern. Besides, if Democrats have a saving grace, it's that Republicans are often just as arrogant, clueless and detached as they are.

For instance, the GOP talks about cutting spending, but then it stands squarely behind an administration that broke open Uncle Sam's piggy bank to pay for the Iraq War and grow the size of government at home through massive expenditures on education and social programs.

Give them enough power, and Republicans will self-destruct just like Democrats have.

The real story is what happened with liberal and middle-of-the-road voters who seem to be having buyer's remorse. What's interesting is why people who voted for Obama would now cast a vote that they have to known (because it was spelled out during the campaign) would torpedo much of the Obama agenda -- not just on health care.

It also takes aim the war on terror and what Brown pointed out was this insane policy of giving terror suspects rights, privileges and attorneys rather than treating them as enemy combatants.

It's not that these Massachusetts voters leaned left two years ago, and now they suddenly lean right. Many of these people are probably just as progressive as they ever have been.

They just think that Obama needs to -- as they say on the street -- "check himself before he wrecks himself."

Many Americans -- not just on the right, but also on the left and in the center -- think that this administration is, in the most arrogant and tone-deaf way, doing too many things, moving too fast and spending too much taxpayer money. That constituency spoke loudly in Tuesday's election.

The White House should listen or be prepared to do a lot more spinning in the months to come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.