By Anne E. Kornblut
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:49 AM
Having promised as a candidate to bring change to Washington, President Obama got a heavy dose of it himself on Tuesday night.
As Democrats suffered steep losses nationwide, evidence mounted that the election was at least in part a repudiation of the president. More than one-third of voters said they cast their ballots as a statement of opposition to Obama, substantially greater than the number that said they voted to support him, according to early exit polls.
Meanwhile, a clear majority of all voters said they disapproved of his performance as president, although disapproval of Congress was even higher. More than half said Obama's policies will hurt the country in the long run, more than the number who said his policies would help.
In some states, Obama watched his efforts to campaign on behalf of candidates fail. Among the most personal losses for the president was that of Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, whose defeat came four days after Obama made a trip to the congressman's Charlottesville district - the president's only such visit for a House member - to attempt a long-shot rescue.
Obama lost prominent Senate races as well: in Pennsylvania, where he campaigned last weekend and, most symbolically of all, in Illinois, for the seat that once belonged to him. He scored one big Senate win: Nevada.
Elsewhere, Obama's campaign stops were met with Democratic victories - including in Maryland, where voters reelected Gov. Martin O'Malley - reflecting a White House strategy to use the president only where he could be effective.
If it was a referendum on Obama, the results were mixed. While his party lost the House, it kept the Senate, where Obama had spent much of his political capital - and where he can now turn to for help in moving his agenda forward.
Still, voters overall expressed dissatisfaction and anger, emotions that tore apart the coalition that catapulted the president into office two years ago. Women were no longer a firewall for Democrats, splitting their loyalty more evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Young voters, the iconic backbone of Obama's presidential campaign, did not turn out to vote as they had in 2008. Only Hispanics held firm for Democrats, with two-thirds supporting them nationwide.
All of it amounted to a significant dialing back of the mandate Obama had inherited so exuberantly with his election two years ago.
At the end of the night, one unanswered question remained: How Obama will respond to Tuesday's losses. The path he chooses - whether to seek a meaningful truce with newly emboldened Republicans, or stand firm in his policies and hope the other side overreaches - will set the course for the remainder of his term. His strategy will unfold rapidly in the days ahead, starting Wednesday, when he holds a 1 p.m. news conference.
If history is any guide, he will make pronouncements with lasting significance: Bill Clinton, after the Democrats suffered major losses in 1994, called on Republican leaders to "to join me in the center of the public debate," a remark that later allowed him to successfully cast the new GOP majority as extreme.
George W. Bush used his first post-midterm news conference to call on both parties to bring a "spirit of bipartisan cooperation to the urgent task of protecting our country from the ongoing threat of terrorist attack," an appeal that presaged the invasion of Iraq.
Until now, Obama has offered few clues about his approach to managing either a diminished or disappeared majority. Earlier Tuesday, with the leadership roles of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in doubt, it was not even clear who would make up the immediate face of the Democratic Party starting Friday, when Obama leaves town for an extended trip to Asia.
Upon his return Nov. 15, Obama has immediate goals, including seeking a bipartisan deal on whether to extend the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts and acting on a report from his deficit commission due out at the beginning of December.
Obama told Boehner and McConnell he is "looking forward to working with him and the Republicans to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people."
With mounting evidence that Republican enthusiasm would tip the scales against them, Democrats hoped Obama could generate even a modest bump in excitement and keep his party competitive in the big races that mattered most.
Under siege from his rivals for much of the year, Obama spent the final campaign stretch trying simply to contain the damage. He traveled the country on behalf of Democratic candidates, making a lengthy Western swing and repeated visits to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.
White House officials insisted the election results did not amount to a referendum on Obama, whose approval ratings have remained in the mid-40s.
On Tuesday night, there were glimmers of good news for the White House: Despite Republicans' gains, 53 percent of voters said they view the GOP unfavorably. Obama's health-care overhaul proved not to be as toxic as some had expected at the polls. It ranked a distant second on people's minds, with 18 percent saying it was their top issue, far behind the economy, which 62 percent said mattered most.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.