Washington America spoke. So what exactly did the country say it wanted beyond an end to one-party rule?
Smaller government. Less spending. More jobs.
“Slow down” was the overriding message to Barack Obama, a first-term president with big ambitions who used his big Democratic majorities in Congress to try to transform the nation. He attempted that feat while simultaneously trying to thwart economic catastrophe with government bailouts that he inherited or initiated of failing banks and teetering automakers.
But it turns out that his type of change was too much, too soon. And voters told him as much Tuesday.
A day later, Obama said he heard them loud and clear.
“I think people started looking at all this, and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people’s lives than they were accustomed to,” the diminished president conceded. He took responsibility for not doing enough to alter the ways of the capital, from hyper-partisanship to back-room dealing. “We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things were done.”
This blunt acknowledgment came from a president who has faced criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike that he’s out of touch with voters’ economic anxiety and has ignored the people’s will. He accepted responsibility in the aftermath of an election that saw Republicans rise to power in the House, bolster their ranks in the Senate, and make sweeping gains in statehouses across the country.
“A shellacking” Obama called it.
And it was.
‘Our job is to listen’
The GOP — the only alternative in a two-party system — was the beneficiary of a disappointed public looking to curtail Obama and his Democrats. But a call for a wholesale return to Republican policies? Not this election.
John Boehner, ready to become House speaker, signaled that he knew as much.
“Our job is to listen to the American people and follow the will of the American people,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said, casting the elections as a rejection of Obama’s agenda. “It’s a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government and continue our fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.”
Creating jobs is an overriding priority, too, he said.
Still, although they put those issues at the forefront, Republicans made clear that they also were eying other priorities, including Obama’s health care law, which Boehner called a “monstrosity” that needed to be repealed.
To the extent that the GOP does have a mandate, an Associated Press analysis of exit poll data shows that it would be to limit the government’s reach and scale back spending.
Republicans won because most voters — and particularly swing-voting independents who decide elections, thought that:
•Government is intruding too much into decisions that should be left to people and businesses.
• Washington isn’t working.
• Reducing the deficit should be a main focus of the next Congress.
• Obama wasn’t doing a good job, and his policies were harming the country.
The president who won by challenging George Bush’s economy two years ago saw his Democrats face a segment of the electorate that was more despairing now. Four in 10 said their own financial situation got worse during his tenure.
“We’ve made progress. But clearly too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet,” Obama said. “I take responsibility for that.”
In an increasingly polarized society, people also had contradictory positions, underscoring the gulf the two sides must bridge if they have any hope of getting things done.
• Divided over what to do with Obama’s health care law.
• Split on whether to renew soon-to-expire tax cuts for everyone including those earning at least $250,000 a year.
• Fractured over whether the new Congress’ top priority should be deficit reduction, creating jobs by spending money, or cutting taxes.
It all gives fodder to Republicans and Democrats alike who are intent on pushing their ideologically different solutions for the nation’s woes.
“Neither side is going to get everything that they want,” said retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. “The difficulty will be the most fervent parts of each party are going to resist that kind of compromise.”
All the evidence of a country in conflict makes clear that voters weren’t so much embracing the GOP as they were rebuking Obama and Democrats. Said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: “This is not necessarily ‘we love Republicans.’ This is ‘change course, the country’s on the wrong track.’”
To that end, ascendent Republicans are mindful that their party’s image — in tatters following the aftermath of Bush’s administration — still is in need of repair.
“We’ve been given a second chance and a golden opportunity,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, No. 2 Republican in the House, cautioning fellow Republicans they must to work to win public confidence.
In some ways, the election was a rejection of both parties and of politics as usual.
Most voters detest Congress. And both political parties, too. Most also don’t like the way Obama has handled his job.
The good news for Obama — if there is any — is that the electorate that voted Tuesday was much more right-of-center than the one that elected him in 2008. With tea party-fueled energy on the GOP’s side, conservatives outnumbered liberals.
But the electorate will all but certainly shift to the left as 2012 approaches and Democrats rally behind the incumbent president. That’s what happened between 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress, and 1996 when President Bill Clinton handily won re-election.
So Obama still has time to change voter attitudes and may have started doing just that on Wednesday with his conciliatory, I-get-it tone.
Left to be answered is whether Republicans get it, too.