A year ago, if you had told President Barack Obama that all he had to do in exchange for Sen. Arlen Specter's decisive votes on the stimulus, healthcare, and what he thought would by now be a done deal on cap-and-trade was one quick press conference to tepidly "endorse" Specter's return to the Democratic party—and then he could kick back and relax while a stronger, more Obama-esque Democrat with better general election prospects beat Specter in the primaries—don't you think Obama would've taken that deal?
Of course he would. And even though that's not quite how he planned it out (or did he?), that's what he got from Tuesday's elections.
No one wins campaigns these days having Obama barnstorm into their districts for last-minute campaign rallies (see Coakley, Martha)—"The president's coattails aren't what they used to be." But in the aftermath of this week's "Super" Tuesday election, the case that Obama was a net loser is still a little thin.
Yes, "his" candidate in the Pennsylvania Democratic senate primary, 30-year incumbent Specter, lost to two-term Congressman Joe Sestak. In the special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha, Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns running against "Obamacare." And in Kentucky, self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate Dr. Rand Paul handily won the GOP senate primary.
The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder summed up the prevailing view of Tuesday's races that the White House "couldn't really claim credit for any victory" and "has yet to figure out how to operationalize the concept of an Obama Democrat." He's right that by now Obama should be a lot better at articulating who he is and whom he represents. But if the new rules are that there are no rules, and voters no longer fall in line with political parties, who says Obama gets hurt by election results that were predictable and, for him, fairly palatable?
Here's why Obama is probably more relaxed about Tuesday's results than people think:
Technically, the president held up his end of the bargain by "supporting" Specter, and now he's got an "Obamacrat"—a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, Afghanistan hawk—that he can support in the general election. Last year Sestak, a retired Admiral, was the loudest and clearest voice defending Obama's decision to swap land-based missile defense in Central Europe for a sea-based system to reel in the Russians on Iranian nukes:
If you're the president, Sestak is the guy you would have wanted on your team all along.
If the bluegrass state sends Dr. Paul to the Senate in November, the upper house will get its most high-profile libertarian member since the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
But Paul, an eye surgeon, got a running start because his obstetrician father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), wa s the 1988 Libertarian Party presidential nominee and a 2008 GOP presidential contender. Tea parties are on the move, and Paul the younger is a capable spokesman for small-"L" libertarianism, but it's hard to imagine he would be as successful if his name were Dr. Paul Rand.
Obama's already scooped up some low-hanging fruit on fiscal reform by establishing a bipartisan federal deficit commission. If he's smart, the president will pull a Bill Clinton and leverage Paul and like-minded fiscal conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) against pro-big business, pro-big government conservatives and pro-big business, pro-big government liberals and get them to do the heavy lifting for him on lowering the deficit.
Three weeks from now, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who split the Democratic primary vote almost evenly, will do it all over again. If Lincoln wins, Democrats will have one of their most conservative senators in position to defend her seat in a conservative but traditionally Democratic state with the backing of both Obama and Arkansas favorite son, Clinton. If Halter wins, Democrats' left-leaning constituencies—organized labor and MoveOn.org—can flex their muscle in support of a liberal upstart.
Obama lost this state to Sen. John McCain by a 10-point margin in 2008, and it won't go for him in 2012, so either way he'd be well-advised to focus on Democratic chances of holding the House of Representatives in 2010 rather than on which Democratic senate candidate is swimming upstream in Arkansas. If Democrats lose the Senate, they gain the filibuster—if Democrats lose the House, Obama will be getting cozy with his veto pen.
And if Oregonians elect GOP nominee and former Portland Trailblazer Chris Dudley governor in the fall, they'll have fielded the first officeholder who can take the president on the basketball court. It's not something that Obama would likely relish, but that's probably one more result that doesn't have him too worried, either. On "Super" Tuesday, the political landscape may have changed, but for Obama, nothing's really happened yet that wasn't going to happen anyway.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.