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Brown, banks and bogeymen

Mark Mardell | 18:46 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

Senator-elect Scott Brown on his way to Capitol Hill

What a week. This anniversary of the president's year in office was always going to be a time for reflection.

The victory of Scott Brown in Republican-resistant Massachusetts turned it into a time for urgent reassessment for the president's party. The word "pivotal" has been used a fair bit. That's right. After twelve months the President has swung on his heel.

This may be, as many commentators contend, the beginning of the end for a one-term, flash-in-the-pan President. This is the third victory in a row for Republicans and they are on a roll. It certainly hints to sweeping Republican victories in November's mid-term elections.

But it may be just the kick the president and his party needed. After that stunning victory and the adulation that followed, he assumed his popularity gave him political invincibility. Although he has been accused of governing from further left than some expected, at heart he's a pragmatist.

He got his head down and got on with the new, serious, difficult and no doubt fascinating business of running the most powerful country in the world.

This week may have reminded him that these days, and especially in America, the political campaign can never stop. The most important thing about power is what you do with it. But a very close second is making sure you keep it.

There have been immediate changes. Whether they like it or not, the Democrats' number one priority, health care, has just slipped dramatically down the agenda.

Scott Brown's election left them with few options. The two main ones have now been ruled out. The president has said the plan must not be pushed through the Senate before Mr Brown takes his seat. Nancy Pelosi has said the Senate bill won't get enough votes in the House.

This surely means that healthcare reform, as currently proposed, is finished.

They deny it is dead, but it is certainly in a coma, only to be wakened if some Republican senators have an unlikely epiphany.

This will be very disappointing for some who voted for Obama. But many on the left thought the plan was too watered down to be worth much.

The opinion polls suggest a more complex picture than simply people hating the idea of any reform, but the current plan had become politically toxic.

The two bills are just too confusing, and the Democrats haven't tried to sell them clearly. I heard a fascinating piece on NPR this morning, an economist trying to convince a union member that taxing her Cadillac plan wouldn't hurt her.
His argument rested on the belief that her company would raise wages if it was forced to adopt a less expensive plan. Not surprisingly, she wasn't convinced.

Timothy Geithner, Barney Frank, President Obama, Paul Volcker

Then there is the president's radical plan for the banks. This looks like a dramatic policy shift. The White House says it was signed off before Christmas, so I'll just observe that by an amazing coincidence it is a perfect fit for this week's narrative.

The president has christened the new plan, so offensive to many big banks, the Volcker rules after former chairman of the Federal Reserve Tall Paul. This is kind of the president because by all accounts Paul Volcker had all but given up on his plan ever being adopted. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was apparently opposed. Now it seems he's been overruled.

The president knows getting this through congress will be hard. But this isn't a messy vote loser in the country. This is a populist clarion call.

He's predicting a swarm of lobbyists will descend on Capitol Hill and he's doing a good impression of a man relishing the scrap ahead.

He'll hope the American people will be cheering him on. He has called on Republicans to join in designing common sense rules to protect ordinary Americans.

They may well deride his plan as another example of government interference, but they are in a sticky position and they know it.

One senator has dismissively said he is creating a "bogeyman". But I bet it is a bogeyman that frightens many of his voters.

The Supreme Court ruling raises another spectre. Banks that feel threatened can spend their money running ads against the new laws.

There may be a torrent of them. But they will have to put their names on them, rather than saying "This advert was paid for by Americans for a nicer America" as happens at the moment. They will have to be very clever adverts to avoid public distain.

The White House no longer seems complacent in the face of bad opinion polls, disastrous elections and a re-invigorated Republican party. Late in the day, they are accepting the battle is serious and returning to the fray.


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