Tuesday's results are open to (careful) interpretation

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:27 AM

History is replete with politicians and political parties that misinterpreted the meaning of elections. President Obama and GOP leaders are in danger of doing so, too.

For Republicans, it's the classic problem of overinterpreting the mandate of an election. For the president, it's the risk of underinterpreting the message that voters delivered Tuesday.

The talking points for the day were set before the ballots were fully counted Tuesday night. The White House and congressional Republicans said the same thing: Americans want us to work together. That is the easy part. For the victors, the rules require no gloating. For the losers, humility is the order of the day.

It took the president nearly an hour at his Wednesday news conference to open up, describing the results as "a shellacking" and acknowledging that his relationship with the American people "has gotten rockier and tougher" over the past two years.

For most of the rest of the hour, however, he sounded little different than he had before the election - unwilling, it seemed, to consider whether he had moved too far to the left for many voters who thought he was a centrist when he ran in 2008.

History tells the president not to panic. Ronald Reagan suffered serious midterm losses in 1982 and won reelection in one of the nation's biggest landslides. Bill Clinton looked flattened after 1994, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic rule in the House and added the Senate as well. He, too, easily won a second term two years later. Obama referred to both in his news conference.

But Tuesday's results showed just how much work Obama has to do to turn around his presidency. He has lost touch with many people. His coalition is now badly fractured: Neither young people nor African Americans showed up Tuesday in numbers approaching their turnout in 2008. Democrats disappeared in some big states as the number of voters dropped dramatically.

Losing independents

Independents didn't just defect from Democrats - they deserted them in droves. If there is one number from all the exit polls that leaps out, it is from Ohio, where independents went for Republican Rob Portman, who won the Senate race, by a staggering 39 percentage points. In the state's gubernatorial election, independents backed winner John Kasich by 16 points. Overall, independents voted Tuesday for Republicans by a margin of 18 points. Two years ago, Democrats won them by eight points.

Independents continue to swing back and forth. Obama may hope they will be back in his column by 2012, if the economy has recovered. But the message from independents was unhappiness not only with the results of Obama's economic and domestic agendas but also with the agendas themselves. According to exit polls, 57 percent of independent voters said the president's policies will hurt the country in the long run. Just 38 percent said they will help.

When he ran for president, Obama was a political phenomenon. There is little likelihood that he can rekindle the magic of 2008 and his extraordinary campaign. Two years as president during some of the most difficult times the country has experienced in many years have taken their toll on the relationship between the president and the public.

Those who doubted him from the start are now hard-core in their opposition. Many of those who were inspired by his candidacy are, at a minimum, let down. Those who were merely hopeful have lost hope. Which means that he must find a new way to connect.

Obama has suffered few such setbacks in his life. With the exception of a loss in his first race for Congress, he has always arrived ahead of schedule on a career path that has moved at an astonishing pace from community organizer to Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president.

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