Year After Obama's Victory, More 'Change' in Air

Last November, Americans flocked to the polls to vote for change.

A year later, change again drove voters on an Election Day -- with much different results.

The same dynamics that powered President Obama to victory -- frustration with the status quo, economic anxieties, hope that new leadership can bring answers -- now stand as the biggest threats to the Democrats' governing agenda.

One year after Obama's resounding victory, the soaring rhetoric of campaigning has given way to the trench warfare of governing in a polarized country. The president's agenda is now backed up behind a stalled health care bill, even as the calendar prepares to flip into a congressional election year.

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Yesterday's election results bring the president's obstacles into harsh focus: All three marquee races on the ballot resulted in party switches. The lesson: Change cuts in at least two directions.

"Anger is far more motivating than satisfaction," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "People were hopeful for change; now they're driving change."

In Tuesday's two-state governor races, independent voters who were critical to the president's winning coalition in 2008 favored Republican candidates by a 2-1 margin. And economic unease -- again, a key factor in Obama's victory -- was foremost on voters' minds, according to exit polls in New Jersey and Virginia.

The mistrust of government Obama capitalized on has only worsened over the past year. Bailouts and stimulus spending may have stopped the economy from collapsing, but voters remain unconvinced -- if not downright angry -- about the nation's economic prospects.

Those factors complicate the president's attempts to enact his ambitious agenda, which -- like most government initiatives -- require money to work.

Pollster: "Door Is Open" For Republicans

The Obama administration has sought to cast his top priority of health care reform as part of efforts to curb government spending. But the public hasn't quite accepted that argument, polls suggest.

The case is likely to be a harder sell after yesterday's results, with moderates in both parties viewing the elections as, at least in part, a referendum on the Democratic agenda.

"The public clearly weren't buying what President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress were selling," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "They haven't yet latched on to the Republican candidates, but the door is opened."

Democrats sought to minimize the importance of a handful of local races. Democrats are still poised to pass a health care reform bill in the House in the coming days, and the president's political standing will get a boost with such a victory. The picture is more complicated in the Senate, where moderates hold more sway.

The challenge for Democrats will be to make the case that the change voters supported last year needs a second endorsement next year, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads House campaign efforts for Democrats. That impacts both candidate preparation and the legislative agenda.

"We need to make sure that between now and a year from now we take actions both on the campaign side as well as whatever policy efforts we need to undertake, to make sure that all those voters understand that … the success of the Obama agenda will depend on the turnout at the polls next November 2010," said Van Hollen.

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