In his response, Obama will set course for rest of term
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.