With the unemployment rate persistently close to 10 percent, voters might not even notice the effects of landmark health care reform legislation for years to come. They do notice that Democrats have been unable, because of partisan and internecine squabbling, to extend unemployment insurance benefits to 2 million Americans this summer.
"Democrats need to offer a choice to be successful: Democrats want to rein in the Wall St. banks, while Republicans want to bail them out," said Michael Bocian of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which works with Democratic candidates.
Bocian said part of the Democrats' message problem goes back to the long health care debate, which was all-consuming on Capitol Hill, but did not yield immediate, tangible economic results.
"The starting point was a long time spent on health care reform when voters were more focused on the economy… Legislative successes take time before they turn into actual improvements in people's lives," said Bocian, who predicted that the Wall Street reform bill would help Democrats once it passes.
For all their frustration with the bills that finally passed, liberal and progressive activists are not likely to stay home on election day.
"The base is not going to sit this one out," said Ilyse Hogue, the political advocacy director of Moveon.org "Our members have long-term memory. They know what it was like under Republican rule. "
But she said they will not be as active for moderate Democrats that don't share their ideals – even though t is those very candidates from purple and red states that give Democrats their majorities.
For the moment, she said, progressive activists will have to figure out how to come to terms with the disconnect between what they want legislation to look like and what Congress will pass.