When Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Republicans only had a narrow majority in the Senate. Yet Reagan was able to undertake a series of profound, far-reaching and radical policy changes that transformed the United States. He cut taxes on the rich, deregulated industries, drove up the military budget (and the deficit) and reshaped the Supreme Court — all without seeking bipartisan unity or offering major concessions to the Democrats.
That, I think, is why so many people are so mad at the Obama administration — and why we shouldn't panic about the loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Yeah, it's terrible (and historic) to lose Ted Kennedy's seat to a weak and lame Republican. And it's alarming to think the Democrats could lose several more Senate seats this fall.
But that shouldn't either stop Obama from pushing a legislative agenda or terrify the Democrats into paralysis.
Look, the Democrats still control Washington. The Republicans still have no ideas of their own, and are doing nothing but obstructing progress so the Obama administration will fail. And nobody seems to be calling them on it. The Democrats were a lot more vocal (and acted a lot more like Democrats) when Bush was in office.
I can't get too agitated about the loss of a 60-vote majority in the Senate; the Democrats never really had that anyway. One of the 60 was Joe Lieberman, who isn't even a Democrat in name anymore and who held Obama hostage, demanded concessions and cave-ins for his vote on health care, and still couldn't be trusted. Now there are 58 Democrats instead of 59; most Democratic presidents in the past century would have loved those numbers. So would most Republicans.
And let's remember — the economy was almost as bad during Reagan's first year as it is now, and it wasn't showing any signs of getting better.
Reagan was a Hollywood-trained actor who'd been a pitchman for cigarette companies; he knew how to look into a camera and make an emotional case for his positions. Obama is by far the best speaker the Democrats have had in decades, and he has the natural ability to go beyond what Reagan did. He can go after the Republicans, make the case for legislative action, push the voters to push their senators and Congress members to approve his agenda, and turn this political funk around. But he's got to give up the bipartisan rhetoric (been there, tried that), convince the millions of people who put their hopes in him that there's still reason to believe, and stop looking at the Massachusetts vote as a rejection of progressive policies.
The mood in the country is anxious, restive, impatient, and displeased — not with the ideas Obama presented during his campaign, but with his failure to make them happen. He can still turn this around by talking about the economy, creating (public sector) jobs — now — and using the still-solid majorities in Congress.
Or he can get all defensive and change course. We know how well that's going to work.