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Assessing midterm losses, Democrats ask whether Obama's White House fully grasped voters' fears
And while Tuesday night in the view of Democrats was a bad one for Obama and his party - giving Republicans control of the House, six more seats in the Senate and a solid majority of governorships - it did not follow the pattern of other recent political waves, when nearly all the close elections went to one party. Democrats were able to prevail in some tight, high-profile races for Senate and governor.
Perhaps because of those victories, or perhaps because for once they saw what was coming, veteran Democrats in Washington and across the country did not seem as shell-shocked as they had after previous repudiations.
"Sweeping judgments of what these elections mean are always faulty and terribly overstated," said retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who recalled the upheavals of 1974, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1994, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
History shows ample precedent for a comeback two years from now, Democratic leaders say, but it will take two things: The economy will have to improve in ways that Americans can feel in their daily lives, and independent voters will have to regain confidence in Obama, who now has a second chance to prove he is the post-partisan conciliatory figure they voted for in 2008.
"Understanding the challenges isn't complicated," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "How we answer them may be."
In the White House, Washington veterans such as chief of staff Pete Rouse, Vice President Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain and legislative affairs head Phil Schiliro have been looking at parallels with earlier political upheavals. They have cautioned their colleagues that the differences between those times and today are at least as important as the similarities.
For instance, White House aides say, trying to imitate Clinton's small-bore initiatives such as promoting school uniforms and television V-chips would look inadequate when unemployment is still hovering close to 10 percent. And with the rise of Fox News and the blogosphere, Obama is confronting a media environment more partisan than anything Clinton faced.
Some of the Democratic unease following the election is over Obama's style and the insularity of a White House operation where decision-making is still tightly held by the same people who guided his presidential campaign, the president's Democratic allies say.
Republicans also have some important political factors working in their favor as they look for additional gains in 2012. Not only is Obama potentially more vulnerable, but he will no longer have crucial gubernatorial allies on the ground in such swing states as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
And the Senate map for 2012 looks treacherous for Democrats. They will be defending 23 seats, including those of the two independents who caucus with them, many in conservative or swing states. Republicans hold only 10 that will be on the ballot.
Nor should Democrats count on Republicans to make the same kinds of mistakes they have in the past, despite the friction between the establishment and tea party wings of their party.
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumed next House speaker, has been around long enough to understand how perishable is the trust of the voters. Boehner "knows ultimately he's going to have to produce results, and if he doesn't, he'll have a short speakership," Dodd said.