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Vote shows independents unhappy with Obama

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger says the basic issue in special election isn't local
  • She says it's about the growing disenchantment of independent voters with Washington
  • Obama hasn't changed business as usual in Washington, Borger says
  • Obama's health care plan could depend on Coakley winning Senate race, she says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- The picture of the two former presidents -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- together in the cause of saving Haiti was one of those arresting images we had to notice. Not because we never see the former presidents together; we do. Sad to say, it's usually when they're reunited after a tragedy -- like a tsunami or an earthquake -- and want to be of service.

Impending domestic financial disaster, a national health care crisis or threats of terror at home get no such bipartisan commiseration or leadership.


And it's what is driving independent voters to despair. After all, it was supposed to be different in President Obama's post-partisan Washington. That's why they voted for him.

But they're disappointed. They believe that the powerful notion of change -- which was Obama's main mantra -- hasn't happened. As a result, the president seems more like every other president: When he took office, 76 percent of the nation said he would deliver the change he promised. Today, there's been a 26 percentage point decline in that number -- and a majority of independent voters say no.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that this White House suffered a political disaster in Massachusetts. The election to fill the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for 46 years turned into a GOP upset. Yes, Martha Coakley has been a bad candidate. And yes, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick isn't popular.

But that's not the real story here, as much as the White House might try to make this political race local. It's not that simple: More than half -- 51 percent -- of the state's voters consider themselves independents. The Democrats can count about 37 percent of the voters; the GOP just 11 percent.

So it's those independents who determined the election -- and they're just as unhappy as their national brethren. That explains why the GOP candidate state Sen. Scott Brown got their support, some estimate by as much as 3-to-1.

The swing voters see Obama as a president who himself has swung too far in one direction -- to big government. They see a large health care package in the offing, and they're not sure it will make their lives better. They see a huge Wall Street bailout, but their own jobs haven't come back.

They see a president who promised to change business-as-usual in Washington, who still cut backroom deals with senators and big labor to try and get health care passed. And they see a deficit growing so large that it a) endangers their future and b) could raise taxes. Plus, they've got two wars to fight and fund, and an ever-present terror threat.

They are not pleased.

The White House can, of course, fairly point out to voters -- as they often do -- that the fiscal and foreign crises were inherited. But that only goes so far, and they know it. So the administration has a Plan B: Argue that keeping the status quo (aka "what Republicans want") would be far worse.

To his credit, the president has tried to do the things he promised -- fix the economy, save and create jobs, fix health care. But in those endeavors, he failed to convince the public of one key fact: that all of this new government is actually good for them. Americans trust government less now than they did after Watergate. Why should anyone believe that more government is going to solve any problem?

And so now he's stuck -- losing a single Senate seat that could cost him health care reform. Coakley was the 60th vote needed to stop a certain GOP filibuster of health care, and her loss could scuttle the president's top domestic priority.

At the outset of his presidency, he refused to consider the notion that a fiscal crisis might demand a more incremental approach to health reform. His argument was that he ought to go for it because he promised it, and the fight would not get any easier midway into his term.

And so, one year later, Democrats were scurrying to figure out ways to salvage the Kennedy seat and health reform. They could, some say, push through reform before the Republican is seated. Or have the House pass an untouched version of the Senate bill, so no additional vote is necessary in the Senate. Or they could just lose -- which, after a year of hand-to-hand combat on reform, seems almost unimaginable.

The choices are bad: Give up on reform and look like a disorganized, weak majority. Or push through reform and look like a corrupt, desperate and arrogant majority.

No good choices.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.