Truck Stop: Obama gets a message -- but will his agenda adjust?

By Rick Klein:

Sometimes there’s not enough sugar to coat the message. And what’s the point of finger-pointing when it’s clear what a particular gesture means?

The lessons abound out of Tuesday’s stunner -- of not taking any race for granted; of respecting the power of populism; of the fickle loyalties of that vast and growing cohort known as “independents”; of the ability for the Obama playbook to be used against the Obama phenomenon; of the power of sudden national political celebrity; of the fallacy of voter mandates in an era of public mistrust of institutions.

This election throws out every flight plan that had those planes coming in for an orderly landing.

What makes this particularly difficult for the White House to manage is that both the right and the left see the election as validation, and a source for invigoration.

Republicans get their 41st vote in Scott Brown, and with his swearing-in (you won’t need chants to make that happen), the chance to block action. Centrist Democrats will want to grab that vote back on anything of significance. Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, see the loss of the 60th vote as a chance to make health care happen with just 51.

What you learn depends upon where you sit. But it’s what lessons the president chooses to derive that matter next.

(A first glimpse comes Wednesday: President Obama sits down for an exclusive interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, with pieces to air on “World News,” “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” and

The White House message moving forward: Democrat Martha Coakley became the “them” in the “us vs. them” debate, as typified by the Fenway Park comment, where she expressed incredulity at the perceived need to shake hands outside the ballpark “in the cold.”

So it’s time to change that imagery again:

“Democrats understand the frustration in America because we saw it and benefitted from it in ’06 and ’08,” a senior administration official tells The Note. “Now we must in ’10.”

The Senate election in Massachusetts stands as a bookend on President Obama’s first year, for better or worse. So he may as well make the best of it.

That means staying the course on health care and beyond -- as if there are real options left for Democrats in this deep and this far:

“It’s frustrating because even I think even a mediocre campaign in Massachusetts probably would have won that election,” former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. “We’ve got to deliver on that [change] -- we’ve got to pass health care reform.”

“The Republicans have chosen their path,” Plouffe said. “We have to lead.”

It may be a time for some presidential calm -- but it gets applied across a new day:

What wasn’t at stake? “From the agenda of President Obama and the legacy of the late Edward M. Kennedy to a referendum on the Democratic monopolies of power on Capitol and Beacon hills, voters in a lopsidedly Democratic state flooded the polls on a dreary winter day to turn conventional wisdom on its head,” The Boston Globe’s Brian C. Mooney reports.

“The last time Massachusetts sent a Republican to the US Senate, Barack Obama was 11 years old,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. “The big question President Obama today: Does he think this result is any reflection at all on him or his agenda?”

“Democrats are rethinking the lessons of Barack Obama's 2008 election, with the GOP cheerfully suggesting they scale back their ambitions and agenda,” the AP’s Chuck Babington writes. “Republican Scott Brown's win in a liberal state will do more than vastly complicate Obama's bid to overhaul the U.S. health care system. It will send his party into a painful re-examination of voters' anger and desires ahead of the November elections for Congress, governorships and state legislatures.”

GOP leaders -- exultant: “The country is sighing a sigh of relief,” RNC Chairman Michael Steele told George Stephanopoulos on “GMA” Wednesday. “It’s not about the president personally; it is about his policies. ... If you don’t get that -- if you don’t hear that from the American people, you’re going to continue down this pathway of losing elections.”

Some storylines you can’t make up -- like Boston sending a state senator from obscurity to celebrity, all over again:

“Scott Brown, a Republican state senator for only five years, shocked and arguably humiliated the White House and the Democratic Party establishment by defeating Martha Coakley in the race for a United States Senate seat,” Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. “He did it one day short of a year after President Obama stood on the steps of the United States Capitol, looking across a mass of faces that celebrated the potential of his presidency.”

Terry McAuliffe, breaking his (relative) silence: “We have to keep our focus on job creation. Everything we have to do is related to job creation. We have to do a much better job on the message. People are confused on what this health care bill is going to do.”

His successor as DNC chairman, with a slightly different take: “I think we would have been better off if we had had 59 senators to start with,” Howard Dean said on MSNBC, per ABC’s Teddy Davis.

Over to Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., in an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl: “If you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up.”

Coakley pollster Celinda Lake, facing the firing squad: “Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street,” Lake told Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., saying that voters were “wanting blood” in the race to fill his father’s Senate seat: “It’s like in Roman times, they’d be trotted out to the coliseum and the lions would be brought out.”

So much for fast action... Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.: “It is vital that we restore the respect of the American people in our system of government and in our leaders. To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated.”

Out of the fallout: “Democrats agree that Brown's victory is a wake-up call. They just disagree on whether it means back off your agenda, or get something done already,” Jill Lawrence writes for Politics Daily.

Everything is illuminated a bit differently: “The Democratic Party's defeat in Massachusetts on Tuesday -- the loss of a single, crucial Senate seat -- will force President Obama and his congressional allies to downscale their legislative ambitions and rethink their political strategy,” Janet Hook and Noam M. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times.

Who doesn’t love a good anniversary story? “Instead of the adulatory throngs that lined the National Mall last Jan. 20 to hail the new chief, Obama now faces the result of a virtual referendum on not only health care but the Democrats' year-old stewardship of the federal government in a state he won in 2008 with 61.8 percent of the vote,” McClatchy’s David Lightman writes.

The mid-terms really start now: “Whether the abrupt shift in the dynamics of the campaign was based on the individual candidates or a broader, national resentment over the economy and President Obama's policies, the down-to-the-wire election has given Democrats pause as House and Senate lawmakers nationwide prepare to face voters in the fall election,” USA Today’s John Fritze and Kathy Kiely report.

“Gloomy Democrats were left to wonder whether they and Obama have an answer to that anger that can head off potentially devastating losses in the November midterm elections, and they faced more potential fractures within their ranks,” Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. “Tuesday's loss triggered unsightly Democratic recriminations, a clear indication of the confusion, disappointment and disillusionment that have set in over the past few months.”

Yes, Brown wasn’t running health care ads, but: “Brown’s promise to be the 41st vote to block ObamaCare clearly resonated with an electorate uneasy about the national legislation,” Scot Lehigh writes in his Boston Globe column. “Notwithstanding Coakley’s poor performance, Brown’s victory highlights the doubts that dog Democrats, particularly on healthcare. That’s an unfortunate reality -- but one they ignore at their peril.”

Most immediately: “The Brown victory forces the White House and congressional leaders to decide how -- or whether -- to salvage their long-sought health-care overhaul. Rushing the bill after losing Massachusetts carries political risks. So does letting it collapse,” The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Hitt and Peter Wallsten report.

Most intriguingly: “We’re still on course resolving differences between the House and Senate bills,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- not, that is, on course approving the Senate-passed bill.

Unless... “I think we now have to begin some negotiations over a different bill,” Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., told The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.: “It's a serious problem, and it's probably back to the drawing board on health care.”

The stakes this week: “The week before Obama's January 27 State of the Union Address will be a hellish time for Democrats but it is also an important test of whether they are willing to become a more muscular -- and thus more effective -- party,” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter writes.

The facts -- and they’re stubborn: “Brown's victory has put a possibly insurmountable obstacle before a health care bill that only days ago was looking all but inevitable,” Time’s Karen Tumulty writes.

The options -- and there aren’t too many: “Democratic leaders insisted they planned to press ahead with health reform, and met late into Tuesday night in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. But they made no decisions about how to proceed,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Patrick O’Connor write. “Their options are few, and extremely complex, mostly involving legislative tactics that would be difficult to pull off in the best of circumstances, let alone at a time when members are worried they could be the next Martha Coakley – a seeming Democratic shoo-in laid low, in part, by health reform.”

That didn’t take long at all: “A liberal activist group on Tuesday night circulated a petition calling on congressional Democrats to pass healthcare reform using the controversial budget reconciliation tactic,” The Hill’s Jordan Fabian reports. “The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) launched the effort after Republican Scott Brown was declared the winner of Massachusetts special Senate election.”

Anyone like something else to run on? “The White House is likely to focus now on salvaging health-care legislation and reclaiming populist ground on the economy and jobs,” Bloomberg’s James Rowley and Julianna Goldman write.

Anyone ever ride a strategy like this to power? “Democratic efforts to reclaim the populist mantle are hampered by the inherent challenge of being the party in power, whereas Republicans, who control neither the White House nor Congress, have largely been able to harness fury at big government,” the Washington Times’ Kara Rowland reports.

Among the worries gripping Democrats -- does this start a stampede for the exits? (How many times can they say it’s not 1994 until it starts looking a little like 1994?)

From the memo going out from National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Wednesday: “Democrats have replaced the ‘politics of hope’ with the politics of blame and irresponsibility during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. For the last year, the Obama Administration has offered one answer for the problems of the day: To blame the previous administration. But voters realize that there is only one party who bailed out the automakers and insurance companies, forced a failed stimulus debacle through Congress, advocated for an energy tax, and attempted to take over America’s health care system.”

And under the radar screen -- in the shadows of the Citizens United decision that could come down any day now -- a chance for conservatives to jump back on the donors’ field: “EMILY’s List, the decidedly pro-Democratic group, may prove to be the real savior of conservatives and Republicans from an ill-conceived George W. Bush administration initiative that resulted in the retreat of conservative donors over the past five years, allowing the left and Democrats an uncontested advantage,” Ben Ginsberg writes in a Politico piece.

“While Citizens United could allow corporations, unions and trade associations unfettered participation, the importance of EMILY’s List should not be overlooked. It reverses what even many of my friends in the Bush administration now admit was a consequential mistake and an unfortunate public policy that both stepped on free-speech rights and squelched the fire of conservatives to engage in the issues debate.”

The Kicker:

“We can’t win them all.” -- President Obama, as quoted by Martha Coakley.

“I would have ... if he had requested it.” -- Sarah Palin, to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, on why she didn’t endorse Scott Brown.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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