Coakley’s Failure, Obama’s Lesson

The president must address middle-class fears and stand up to Wall Street.

Coakley's concession speech - Getty Images

No, Coakley was the machine candidate. She ran that way. She failed that way.

Does Coakley’s loss signal deeper problems for Obama? Mostly yes, but partly no. In the short run, it greatly weakens the potential of passing his key domestic policy agenda item: health care reform. The bill can still be passed if the Democrats act quickly, however. And, in any event, 2012 is quite a ways down the road.

Does it signal that Obama has moved too far to the left and now needs to beat a hasty return to the center? Absolutely not. Coakley would almost certainly have lost by significant double digits had Obama not shown up to campaign for her and if she (and many others such as SEIU-COPE) had not run numerous powerful ads in the last 48 hours of the campaign playing up this connection.

Yes, in the waning hours of the campaign, when she was too far behind to recover, Coakley explained to voters that Scott Brown actually was a deeply conservative Republican out of step with Massachusetts. She pointed out his almost complete alignment with Bush-Cheney policies. She pointed out the complete blank check Brown is willing to extend to Wall Street. Finally, at the very final hour, her campaign showed signs of a pulse and a heartbeat but, as they say on TV medical dramas all the time when explaining the loss of a patient to family members, “too much damage had already been done. We couldn’t save her.”

The message for Obama is, in fact, very clear. Do not wait for Republicans to define you and mislead the public as to their commitments. Articulate a positive agenda. Paint the Republicans, and justly so, as purely obstructionist figures who stand in the way of responsible reform and economic recovery. Standing silent or even playing bipartisan, at this point, leaves you open to a “Coakley.”

Keep an ear to the ground and realize that many, many Americans are hurting. Most of those who aren’t hurting are deeply worried about their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes and the future. Give voice to that anxiety and the deepening sense of outrage people feel as they see bankers and Wall Street reaping out-sized profits and bonuses after getting massive tax-payer bailouts.

The plan to tax bank profits is one important step in the right direction. But it is insufficient in rhetoric and substance. A front-burner issue for Obama has to be appropriate and sensible financial reform on Wall Street. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and others on Obama’s economic team can’t pull together the program and the message, then he needs to promptly start putting together a new team. The growing anger in Middle America is palpable. Republicans should not be allowed to manipulate this anger, as Scott Brown did so effectively, in service of a failed right-wing political agenda.

What Democrats need to realize, however, is that the epic Coakley failure was not a “throw the bums out” vote. It is not a rejection of Democrats. It was a vote of disappointment and outrage at a posture of political entitlement and popular indifference. Massachusetts voters said no to a smug Democrat, not to Obama’s agenda for America. Reading this as a signal to move to the right would be to, well, commit a Coakley.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.