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Democrats debate Obama agenda's impact on Democratic Party

Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future, but as a window on how the political landscape might have changed in the year since President Obama won the White House, Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey delivered clear warnings for the Democrats.

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By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Democrats on Capitol Hill began a nervous debate Wednesday about the course President Obama has set for their party, with some questioning whether they should emphasize job creation over some of the more ambitious items on the president's agenda.

The conversations came as White House officials insisted that the party's gubernatorial defeats in Virginia and New Jersey had few implications for Obama's standing or for Democratic prospects in the 2010 midterm elections.

But moderate and conservative Democrats took a clear signal from Tuesday's voting, warning that the results prove that independent voters are wary of Obama's far-reaching proposals and mounting spending, as well as the growing federal debt. Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, said the party's shortcoming came in moving too slowly on health-care reform and other items that would satisfy a base becoming disenchanted with the failure to deliver rapid change in government.

Voters in both states cited the economy as by far their top concern, and many lawmakers said the outcomes were a blunt wake-up call to put the issue front and center.

"The question is, do people think we're tending to the things they care about?" said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) as he left a meeting of Senate leaders. He said there was palpable concern among his colleagues Wednesday that the main agenda items Democrats are pursuing -- health care and climate change -- resonate very little with voters focused on finding or keeping jobs.

"Don't think people in my state are going to stand up and start cheering about Copenhagen," Rockefeller said, referring to the European city that will host a summit on global warming next month. Critics of the climate-change legislation before Congress say it would be a job-killer in states dependent on manufacturing and natural resources.

Obama all but ignored the election results, calling to congratulate the winners and traveling to Wisconsin for an education speech. But his top aides worked furiously to rebut the idea that Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia require a reassessment of the president's priorities.

"People went to the polls and voted on local issues, not to either register support for or opposition to the president," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters hours after the balloting. Asked whether moderate lawmakers might view the results differently, and thus worry about casting tough votes on Obama's agenda, Gibbs said no. "I don't think they will, and I'm not concerned," he said.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said that he and other White House aides will attempt to help the "merchants of conventional wisdom focus on the facts here." And he said there will be no change in the president's push for health-care reform -- nor a change in tactics by his lieutenants.

Signs of change

But there were clear signs that the landscape has changed for Democrats in the past year. Independents, who were crucial to Obama's election, swung dramatically to Republicans in both Virginia and New Jersey. If that pattern holds a year from now, Democratic lawmakers in swing districts could find themselves losing reelection battles.

The results left lawmakers less sanguine than the president's ever-confident advisers. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the results in his state and elsewhere have "somewhat of a chilling effect, potentially, on the agenda."

Connolly, who provided a detailed briefing on the results Wednesday morning to the 35 freshmen House Democrats, focused on what he called a "depressed Democratic base." Voters in the Old Dominion who had sided with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last November showed up in greater numbers Tuesday than those who voted for Obama last year, Connolly said he stressed to his colleagues.


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