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

President's Stalled Agenda, Skeptical Public, Open Door for GOP


Nov. 4, 2009—

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.

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.

But after some early victories, that agenda has come up hard against Washington realities. Aside from health care's slow crawl, a climate change bill has been shelved in the Senate, where moderates are fearful of being seen as raising taxes.

Obama Agenda Slow to Materialize Means Opportunity for Republicans

The president's efforts to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haven't gone as planned, with Democrats emerging as some of his harshest critics on foreign policy. Other campaign promises -- sweeping immigration reform, gay-rights legislation, closing Guantanamo -- have fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily.

This has helped open opportunities for Republicans, as evidenced by the fact that the so-called Obama "surge" voters -- first-time voters who flocked the polls last year -- stayed home in large numbers in Virginia and New Jersey, both states the president carried. Independents, meanwhile, migrated to the GOP camp.

"The normal laws of political gravity have reasserted themselves," said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican political consultant. "This means we have the opportunity to compete. You put up an A-tier candidate, and you can compete anywhere."

The GOP clearly hasn't walked through that door just yet. Democrats picked up both congressional seats that were decided Tuesday; in one of them, they won a seat that had been in Republican hands for more than a century, in upstate New York.

In that race, Democrats exploited a party fissure that left conservative activists dueling with local GOP leaders over whether the Republican candidate was sufficiently conservative. The Republican wound up dropping out of the race and endorsing the Democrat, who scored something of an upset Tuesday.

That race stands as a lesson for some moderate Republicans about the dangers inherent in trying to rebuild the party. The temptation to drive the party hard to the right -- with a sharp focus on social and fiscal conservatism -- could splinter the GOP, said Tom Davis, a moderate Republican and a former House member from Virginia.

Lesson: Electoral Realignments Aren't Permanent

"What happens is you'll split up. You could even get a third party out of this," Davis said on's "Top Line" last week. "It's very clear neither party is popular in this country. You know, they're not electing Republicans or un-electing Democrats. That's the only way the Republicans come back. And to do that they have to have a broad coalition."

Democrats, of course, are hoping for more intra-party skirmishes that damage Republican chances. And they could take a small slice of solace in watching GOP candidates win with centrist, pragmatic messages -- even using words like "hope" and "change" in their stump speeches.

Among the lessons of the past year is one that seems to get re-learned every few years in Washington: There's no such thing as a permanent electoral realignment.

The prevailing sentiment -- and perhaps the most powerful electoral force -- has less to do with either political party than it does with anxiety over the status quo.

"There's definitely an anti-incumbent mood out there that's palpable," Celinda Lake said. "That bodes worse for the Democrats, because we have more incumbents. It's bad for both parties, but it's worse for the Democrats."