Turn out the lights?

I’d like to say it was fun while it lasted but, honestly, it wasn’t all that fun.

It was only 14 months ago that Barack Obama won the presidency in a decisive victory over John McCain. The fervor generated by Obama’s campaign swept many other Democrats into office as well.

Obama made some fine and inspiring speeches, signaling a new era in which great and positive changes were afoot and America’s reputation in the world would be dramatically improved.

It sounded good and it felt good. The execrable eight years of George W. Bush had finally come to an end. Obama was his antithesis — thoughtful, articulate, literate, all the things most of us want, or should want, in a commander in chief.

But ever since those heady days, there’s been a growing sense that things just weren’t going to work out how they were intended. Piece by piece, the dream machine has fallen apart.

For all his eloquence and good intentions, Obama has, on many issues, fallen into the time-worn ruts of Washington politics. He has not delivered on his promise to change how political business is conducted, and he hasn’t made much progress on his domestic agenda either. Obama must take responsibility for this, but there’s plenty of blame to spread around. We can start with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the key legislator pushing Obama’s agenda forward. Over the past year, despite considerable efforts, the Nevada Democrat has largely failed to deliver much of importance to Obama.

Reid was very close to getting a halfway decent health care reform bill sent to Obama’s desk. But he took too long. With the surprising Republican victory in Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate race, Democrats are now gutting their health care ambitions in hopes of garnering one or more Republican votes.

To be fair, Obama was dealt an almost unbelievably bad hand: the Great Recession, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo, GOP intransigence on everything. He’s had a hell of a deep hole to try to climb out of.

But still, he hasn’t taken control of the national agenda as his supporters had hoped. He often pulls his punches and plays the old political game. His strategy of letting Congress hash out the details of health care reform was a nightmare. Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, sums up the situation nicely:

“What the Democrats — and a lot of this is on the White House — have done is get so deep into the inside game of legislative maneuvering, this and that ‘gang’ of senators and a lot of other nonsense that they’ve left themselves out of sync with the public mood and the people’s needs.”

Obama and his financial team have played footsie with Wall Street ever since he took office, exactly the wrong tack. The populist approach isn’t always the best or wisest, but in the case of Wall Street he should have realized that you must deal with these arrogant thugs in a more aggressive way. They care about two things only: money and power. The only way to get their attention — and their respect — is to hit them where it hurts. Wall Street needs someone to crack heads. Instead, Obama and Congress have dithered and compromised and demurred.

The results have been predictable. As Ronald Corso, a local Facebook friend, put it, “That’s what happens when you govern like you’re apologizing for winning.”

Yet in the wake of the Massachusetts rout, some Democrats have insisted that all is not lost. Arianna Huffington, the Huffington Post namesake, makes a compelling argument that Democrats must enact a “course correction” to salvage the 2010 elections. She says Obama needs to look back to the reasons he was elected in the first place and upend the status quo, not become it.

Because the country is so totally messed up right now, we’re seeing faster and more frequent swings in public sentiment. Remember that when Obama and many other Democrats won in November 2008, political observers said the Republicans were on the verge of extinction. This was not true, but it sure seemed that way at the time, even to many Republicans.

Fourteen months later, the Republicans appear to be back in business. Emboldened by the Massachusetts victory, some are even predicting a “Republican renaissance.” But just as the GOP wasn’t dead in November 2008, it’s a bit much to be talking about a “renaissance.” The Massachusetts vote and public opinion polls strongly suggest not Republican popularity but a backlash against Democrats who aren’t getting enough done on the economy.

By the way, the Massachusetts vote is yet another indication that Reid faces a monumental task to get re-elected in November. If Reid’s opponents weren’t so feeble, I’d count him out right now.

One irony of Massachusetts is that voters were frustrated with Obama and the Democratic Congress for not doing anything to curtail Wall Street. So they elected a Republican. Does anyone seriously believe the Republican Party has any interest whatsoever in putting the hammer down on Wall Street? Please.

The bottom line for Democrats: Lurching to the middle right now would be a disaster. It’s not that voters want less reform, it’s that they want more of it.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

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