Assessing midterm losses, Democrats ask whether Obama's White House fully grasped voters' fears

A recap of election night highlights.
By Karen Tumulty and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:46 AM

President Obama's failure to channel the anxieties of ordinary voters has shaken the faith that many Democrats once had in his political gifts and his team's political skill.

In his own assessments of what went wrong, the president has lamented his inability to persuade voters on the merits of what he has done, and blamed the failure on his preoccupation with a full plate of crises.

But a broad sample of Democratic officeholders and strategists said in interviews that the disconnect goes far deeper than that.

"There doesn't seem to be anybody in the White House who's got any idea what it's like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away," said retiring Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). "They're all intellectually smart. They've got their numbers. But they don't feel any of it, and I think people sense that."

Bredesen had voiced such reservations long before the election, but more Democrats are saying the same thing after Tuesday's defeats - although few are willing to cross the White House by doing so publicly.

Obama "is not Bill Clinton in the sense that he's not an extrovert. He doesn't gain energy by connecting with people," said a Democratic strategist, who worked in the Clinton White House and asked not to be named while offering a candid criticism. "He needs to be forced to do it, either by self-discipline or others. There's no one around him who will do that. They accommodate him, and that is a bad thing."

William A. Galston, a Clinton White House policy adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the midterm election revealed what had always been a "missing middle" to the Obama campaign message.

"Hope is a sentiment, not a strategy, and quickly loses credibility without a road map," Galston wrote in a paper released two days after the election. "Throughout his first two years in office, President Obama often struggled to connect individual initiatives to larger purposes."

With the public skeptical of and even hostile to his biggest accomplishments, including the economic stimulus package and the health-care overhaul, Obama fell back on a plea to voters not to turn back to failed Republican policies. That appeal "just missed what was happening with the country and with people," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Still, Democrats remain divided between their moderate and liberal wings over whether the president should continue to push hard with his agenda or move to the center to try to accommodate the Republicans in Congress.

What could turn that tension to open warfare within the party is the decision of outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to run for the job of minority leader in the next Congress, despite the fact that she had become a symbol of what Republicans called big-government overreach.

Window of opportunity

As Democrats try to get back on their feet and adjust to the new reality of divided government, they say there are opportunities to be found in the next two years. Anxious, impatient, dissatisfied voters, they say, did not embrace the GOP agenda but rather rejected the way business got done in Democratic-controlled Washington.

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