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Obama blames Massachusetts Senate loss on middle-class economic pain

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White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Republican Scott Brown's stunning Massachusetts Senate victory shook the power balance in Washington. (Jan. 20)
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David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, said on MSNBC that the "main thing" to come out of the election results was a reminder that Obama and his party will be judged by whether people feel economically secure in the weeks and months ahead.

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"The main thing that we saw in Massachusetts was the same sense of concern on the part of middle-class folks about the economic situation, about their wages being stagnant, about their jobs being lost," he said. "That's something that we have to pay a great deal of attention to."

While some lawmakers and pundits began predicting a full-scale retreat from the president's health-care reform effort, White House advisers said they are unwilling to accept defeat -- yet. Obama's closest advisers refused to express panic about the issue and vowed to find a way to proceed with some version of health-care reform.

Axelrod called the current health-care system "a real crisis" that is "part of what middle-class people are struggling with." Obama "believes we ought to deal with that crisis," he said. "It's not an option to simply walk away from a problem that's only going to get worse."

The president's aides were quick to accept some blame yesterday for the loss of the Senate seat but also offered a long list of failings by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and her team, including her decision to vacation during the campaign and a failure to vigorously pursue votes during the final weeks.

White House aides rejected the idea that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on Obama. The Democratic candidate was leading by double digits just weeks ago, an indication, they said, that the political environment set by the president was not dragging her down.

But they struggled to explain how a Democratic Party that found such success in 2008 has now lost three consecutive major races, including contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia last November.

One senior Democratic strategist said that in conversations he had with party leaders, there seemed to be an unwillingness on the part of the White House to acknowledge the party's new problem with independent voters, who were key to Obama's victory.

"Democrats on the Hill and in the White House don't seem to get that independent voters are upset with them," said the source, who spoke candidly about the president and his team on the condition of anonymity.

Administration officials said the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat might give upcoming races across the country a jolt, awakening state parties to the perils of fielding weak candidates and giving national Democrats justification to weigh in on problematic campaigns. If there is a silver lining, they said, it is that no Democrats are now unaware of how endangered their power -- and their congressional majority -- is.

Asked whether Obama was having a bad day, Dunn laughed and asked: "Why? Because he's only got 59 votes in the Senate? Can we get a little perspective here, people?"

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.


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