03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama Brand Implodes


In the special election to replace Edward M. Kennedy, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party leadership were handed their heads in the most stunning, avoidable repudiation of ineptitude in recent political memory. Obama's reaction, which was given through an interview with George Stephanopoulos, as translated by Paul Krugman today is: In short, "Run away, run away"!

It's not like Obama didn't know Massachusetts might be a rough one. Virginia and New Jersey were warnings, with the added reality accompanying these shots that independents were scurrying from Democratic sights by the dozens. Sen. Jim Webb responded quickly to Coakley's defeat, no doubt speaking for more than himself; Rachel Maddow read Barney Frank's statement out loud, though he's since flip flopped on it.

Now we've lost Massachusetts to the Republicans, emboldening them further, dreams of defeated Dems dancing across their heads. Rubio in Florida the first to get a boost, Blanche Lincoln further endangered, with Harry Reid's days now surely numbered, if they weren't already. Imagine that sight come November. It will make Daschle's thumping by Thune, seen today as a possible presidential contender, look like a blip.

All of this manifesting after the welcome relief of voters finally getting rid of the Bush-Cheney regime, which had sullied the doorstep of our democracy on every front, the people eager and ready for the change and hope promised from Barack Obama. Who walked into Washington with the wind at his back, the press at his feet, and the world waiting for him to begin delivering on all that his candidacy promised. Certainly expectations were high, way too high, but it wouldn't have taken much to appease the anxiousness everyone felt at what we all knew was possible, because Democratic policies were just what the voters had ordered.

Instead, Barack Obama reached across the aisle and let the Republicans stymie the Democratic agenda on the altar of Let's Make A Deal, which they had no intention of doing. For one full year Pres. Obama has laid back, waited, and let things spin completely out of control until even Ted Kennedy's old seat has been squandered on the altar of bipartisanship.

The President pretending he wasn't a Democrat so much as some mediator in a policy dispute, making sure not to pick his own side over the other.

Obama's promise unfulfilled, the voters decided to seek another kind of change for themselves.

The urgency of personal plight waits on no politician.

The White House allowed the health care narrative to be all about process, and the process the American people saw wasn't pretty. It scared seniors, who worried what would happen to their Medicare. It scared workers, who worried about what would happen to the plans their unions had negotiated so hard for in lieu of salaries. It scared middle class Americans with good health insurance plans, who had -- and have -- no idea whether their plans will be deemed -- if not today, in three or four years -- Cadillacs, which will first be taxed and then discontinued, leaving them with exactly what Frank Luntz told them it would leave them with: a bureaucrat between them and their doctor. And worst of all, it seemed to most Americans that the reason they were being asked to make such potentially big sacrifices was so that health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and millionaires wouldn't have to. It seemed not only risky but unfair.

So in that sense, the story of health insurance played right into the story that lies behind the looming tsunami that swept away Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and will sweep away so many more Democratic seats if the Democrats draw the wrong conclusions from this election. The White House just couldn't seem to "get" that the American people could see that they were constantly coming down on the side of the same bankers who were foreclosing people's homes and shutting off the credit to small business owners, when they should have been helping the people whose homes were being foreclosed and the small businesses that were trying to stay afloat because of the recklessness of banks that were now starving them. Americans were tired of hearing Obama "exhort" bankers and speculators to play nice as they collected their record bonuses for a heckuva job in 2009. It took him a year to float the idea of making them pay for a fraction of the damage they had done, and at this point, few Americans have any faith that a tax on big banks will ever become law or that the costs won't just be passed on to them in new fees.

Still, over the evening after Scott Brown won, messages drifted in to me that it wasn't Obama's fault, that it was only Coakley, that is was -- insert the excuse here -- and that Obama wasn't to blame. The ObamaforAmerica crowd escaping their panic in the ObamaForever bubble, with the reality too much for the unthinking, uncritical, unconcerned, because Obama simply can't fail, though he had, once again sending out their message of more time is needed, it's everyone's fault, just not his. Never mind that it hardly matters the mistakes of Martha Coakley's campaign, because the boss gets paid to see these things coming. The boss and party leaders expected to understand the symbolic importance of Teddy Kennedy's seat, which even Teddy always treated as the people's seat and worked his heart out to deliver for them; no one knowing more than Kennedy that coattails are an illusion, as he and John Kerry couldn't even deliver for Barack. Vicki Kennedy may take last night's blow as a final insult and rise up to take it back, but nothing can undo the damage done. That replacing Kennedy with a Republican went beyond the right's hopes and dreams of Virginia and New Jersey, because now they'd deprived Democrats and their bright shining political star, Barack Obama, of a Senate seat that meant more than any single number. They took down Democratic history and did it in a walk, putting the President's plans in limbo, because there was no Plan B. Like when Ted Kennedy was dying and neither Obama or the Democratic leadership felt the urgency to pass health care before he himself passed. All in due time, they chanted, even when time ran out.

The "fierce urgency of now" now rendered to just words.

The huge good will Barack Obama walked into Washington now been frittered away, as the Democratic leadership stood by and watched it happen, starting with health care. First August came and went, then Sarah Palin's "death panels" came and went, and now the super majority Pres. Obama believed he needed to pass health care has come and gone. Reconciliation or bust? On which bill? Because conservative Democrats now have a place to take refuge, on the porch biding time for survival. With foreign policy the other casualty; the strength Obama showed towards Israel and their obligation to freeze settlements looming large beyond, the weakening on the domestic front likely to empower the status quo crowd, who have simply waited out the inevitable. The previews of what was coming feeding their patience. The promises at Cairo a mere memory.

We can only hope that one year after Obama took office, his win putting the very question of conservative relevancy into question, that the Democratic leadership will wake up. That the stark reversal of fortunes sent through the message of independents who have manifested two party disgust by outnumbering both sides now, aided by many Democrats as well, will make a dent. But if the last year has taught us anything, it's that Democrats will double down on reaching out and going right to where they can nurse their own caution, instead of digging in and getting what was promised done sending the sign that they got the message.

Instead, Obama's first instinct is to "run, run away," as Paul Krugman writes today.

We've been showing the way for months on health care, but Obama wouldn't listen. He still isn't.

Peter Daou wrote about this the other day. I was writing the same thing at the very same time, because it's true.

We told you so.

Taylor Marsh is a political analyst, with podcasts available on iTunes.