By 2008, Americans were disgusted with their government. They were sick of partisan gridlock and general incompetence. Along came Barack Obama offering to usher in a new era. It was time, he said, to put away childish things.
There were actually two elements to the Obama campaign. First, he promised a less partisan government. Second, he promised a more activist government. His post-partisan style was accompanied by conventional Democratic policy substance. It was clear voters wanted the first element, but it was never clear how many wanted the second.
Obama was inaugurated in the midst of an economic crisis, and the activist policy proposals took precedence. If, a year ago, you had been asked to describe the administration's goals in one sentence it would have been this: Barack Obama will usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform. Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Obama would take the third step, transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life.
A distinct Obama governing style emerged, which was half Harvard Economics Department and half Boss Daley. The administration is staffed by smart pragmatists who are optimistic about the government's ability to devise comprehensive plans. Their proposals were processed by Congressional Old Bulls who made sure the legislation served Democratic interest groups.
The stimulus package, the cap-and-trade legislation and the health care bill were all blends of expert planning and political power-broking. This project would have permanently changed government's role in national life.
It was not to be. Voters are in no mood for a wave of domestic transformation. The economy is already introducing enough insecurity into their lives. Unlike 1932 and 1965, Americans do not trust Washington to take them on a leap of faith, especially if it means more spending.
The country has reacted harshly to the course the administration ended up embracing. Obama is still admired personally, but every major proposal - from the stimulus to health care - is quite unpopular. Independent voters have swung against the administration. Voters are not reacting to the particulars of each bill. They are reacting against the total activist onslaught.
A president can't lead a social transformation without a visceral bond with the center of the electorate and without being in step with the rhythm of the times. Obama is lacking these things. As a result, the original Obama project, the third Democratic wave, is dead.
The administration resists this conclusion, just as it took the Bush administration a while to recognize that Social Security reform, and the larger privatization dream, was dead. But federal activism will not mark the next three years.
The next challenge is to find a new project, a new one-sentence description of what this administration hopes to achieve. It is obvious: President Obama will show that this nation is governable once again. He should return to the other element in his original campaign.
That would mean first leading a campaign of brazen honesty with the American people. He could lay out the fiscal realities and explain that voters cannot continue to demand programs they are unwilling to pay for.
Second, he could propose some incremental changes in a range of areas and prove Washington can at least take small steps. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been arguing that, given the climate of distrust, this is not a good period to push big, comprehensive reforms. He's right.
Third, Obama could serve as a one-man model for bipartisan behavior. Right now, the Republicans have no political incentive to deal on anything. But the president could at least exemplify the kind of behavior voters want to see in their leaders. For example, he could take several of the Republican health care reform ideas - like malpractice reform and lifting the regulatory barriers on state-based experimentation - and proactively embrace them as part of a genuine compromise offer.
Fourth, he could continue to champion his fiscal commission. Republicans are being completely hypocritical on this, unwilling to embrace an idea they once supported because it might lead to tax increases. If he really put aside the publicity gimmicks, he could illustrate the difference between responsible government and the permanent campaign.
Fifth, it's time to have a constitutional debate. We might require amendments of one sort or another to fix the broken political system.
We can spend the next few years engaging in kabuki bipartisanship, in which each party puts on pseudo-events to show that the other party is rigid and rotten, or somebody can break the mold. We can spend the next three or seven years squabbling about the shrinking puddle of discretionary spending, or somebody can break out of the fiscal vise.
It would be an incredible legacy: Barack Obama restored America's faith in its own institutions.