Scott Brown's election gives Obama the jitters

The dramatic revolution promised by Obama is now very unlikely to materialise

You read it here first, naturally. I wrote in these pages three weeks ago that the Republicans could just do the inconceivable and take the Massachusetts US Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy since 1962 - and, if that happened, a Republican victory would transform the face of American politics. That was exactly how it turned out: 50-year-old Scott Brown cruised to a comfortable 52-47 per cent win over his Democratic rival, heralding the start of Barack Obama's worst week yet in office.

The atmosphere in the White House became even grimmer two days later, when the Supreme Court overturned the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, thus opening the floodgates for big-time corporate and industrial America to donate unlimited funds to election campaigns - a ruling that will benefit the Republicans vastly more than the Democrats.

Thus, in just three days, Obama saw his chances of becoming the 21st century's great, FDR-like president of reform and change diminish exponentially: his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate had already gone, and now the Republicans could justifiably look forward to taking even more congressional seats in the midterm elections in November.

Pickup pin-up

The irony is that the Republican victor in Massachusetts who suddenly symbolises the thwarting of the Obama agenda, Senator-elect Scott Brown, is remarkably unexciting. During the election campaign he drove 2,000 miles around the state in a GMC Canyon pickup truck to show voters just how regular a working guy he really is ("I'm Scott Brown, I'm from Wrentham, and I drive a truck").

Yet by the time he flew in to Reagan National Airport in Washington on a US Airways shuttle, less than 48 hours after his electoral triumph, Brown had already morphed into the prototypical senatorial Mr Suit: ready in his grey suit, navy tie and Ralph Lauren shirt to take his place alongside all the other suits - 82 of the remaining 99 senators also being more-or-less-middle-aged, white (or, in the case of three, white-ish) males.

If you relied on the US media you would be unlikely to know it, but Brown is, somewhat inevitably, a conformist corporate lawyer (at the international law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) rather than a pickup driver. His previous obscurity was such that he was not even the best-known member of his own household: his wife, Gail Huff, is a high-profile television newscaster in Boston, and his 21-year-old daughter, Ayla, had been a star on American Idol.

True, Brown's telegenic good looks probably helped - perhaps the most noteworthy feat in his life until now was to have posed as a naked centrefold for Cosmopolitan when he was a law student. As did his strategic spending of $2.2m in the remaining eight days of the campaign on local radio and television ads in swing areas. By Republican standards he is also politically moderate.

The most telling feature of the campaign, however, was that when the president realised belatedly that the Democrats were in trouble in Massachusetts and flew there to campaign at the last minute, the words "health care" did not once cross his lips. He knew that one of the central planks of the once-so-grand Obama platform, the revolutionary and much-needed reform of America's health-care system, had become a toxic issue even in forward-looking Massachusetts.

Thanks to the state's former governor Mitt Romney, it had passed its own health-care reform bill in 2006, bringing the kind of changes that Obama wants for the rest of the country. Brown supported that bill, which requires all residents to purchase health insurance, but now opposes the president's proposals on the grounds that they are fiscally irresponsible.

The problem is that Americans, whose appalling medical care ranks 37th globally, ­according to the World Health Organisation, have been brainwashed into thinking it is actually by far the best. Most would simply laugh if told that the French have easily the best health system in the world. In Washington, the pharmaceutical industry alone has six full-time lobbyists for each of the country's 535 congressmen and women. In addition, there are more than a thousand other organisations in the city, with lobbyists working to retain the existing but highly profitable shambles.

Dead Kennedys

Sensing the shifting mood, Brown concentrated his campaign on killing what is now contemptuously depicted by the right as "ObamaCare", and one exit poll showed that 78 per cent of those who ended up voting for him did so to stop ObamaCare. Even the district including the town of Hyannisport, home of the Kennedy family compound since 1926 - Ted Kennedy's dying wish was for health-care reform - turned Republican. If this typifies public opinion in enlightened Massachusetts, what on earth do, say, the voters of Texas think?

This is the terrible conundrum for Obama, because he knows that the Massachusetts election was really a referendum on his presidency. His popularity ratings are dropping steadily. A Gallup poll shows that most Americans now want him to drop his health-care legislation. He is learning the hard way that soaring oratory promising an end to bipartisanship in Washington does not magically result in the end of that bipartisanship.

Poor Obama may yet be able to salvage parts of his health-care reform package - making it illegal for insurance companies to refuse insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, for example - but the dramatic revolution he promised is now very unlikely to materialise. We know all this, alas, because of the rise from anonymity of an ersatz pickup driver named Scott.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven