It was the worst of times for the Democrats and the best of times for the Republicans—almost. The GOP did not succeed in capturing the Senate, or dethroning the Democratic leader, but with an energy boost from the Tea Party movement it certainly reflected the anger and dismay of voters who see their country foundering at home and abroad.
The results represent a sharp rebuke to President Obama, who interpreted his 2008 "vote for change" as a mandate for changing everything and all at once. Right from the start, he got his priorities badly wrong, sacrificing the need to help create jobs in favor of his determination to pass Obamacare. It was the state of the economy that demanded genius and concentration, and it just did not get it. The president will now have to respond to public anger, not with anger management and, not, please God, with still more rhetoric. The unusually revealing exit polls spell it all out—how he re-energized the Republican Party, lost the independent center, and failed to overcome the widespread sense that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
The exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool show that the economy was the dominant issue, rated at 62 percent, while healthcare was only at 18 percent. Minority voters remained loyal (9 in 10 blacks and 2 in 3 among Hispanics), but everywhere else Obama was deserted. Independents and women fled the Democrats; among white women, no less than 57 percent chose the GOP. There are some surprises for the conventional wisdom. The case for creating more jobs by government spending was rated within a hair's breadth of reducing the deficit (37 percent to 39 percent) and opinion was evenly divided (33 to 33) on whether the stimulus had hurt or helped the economy. Voters registered their disapproval of Democratic control of Congress and of what the White House promised but failed to deliver. It is apparent that Obama didn't seem to have understood the problems of the average American.
He came across as a young man in a grown-up's game—impressive but not presidential. A politician but not a leader, managing American policy at home and American power abroad with disturbing amateurishness. Indeed, there was a growing perception of the inability to run the machinery of government and to find the right people to manage it. A man who was once seen as a talented and even charismatic rhetorician is now seen as lacking real experience or even the ability to stop America's decline. "Yes we can," he once said, but now America asks, "Can he?"
The last two years have exposed to the public the risk that came with voting an inexperienced politician into office at a time when there was a crisis in America's economy, as the nation contended with a financial freeze, a painful recession, and two wars. The Democrats were simply not aggressive enough or focused enough in confronting the profound economic crisis represented by millions of ordinary Americans whose main concern was the lack of jobs.
Jobs have long represented the stairway to upward mobility in America, and the anxiety over joblessness became the dominant concern at a time when financial security based on home equity and pensions was dramatically eroding. No great speech is going to change the fundamental fact that millions of people are either jobless or underemployed at a time when only a quarter of the American population describes the job market as good.
Why did Obama put his health plan so far ahead of the economy? To do what the Clintons couldn't? His rush to do it sparked a broad resistance that has only spread since the bill was passed. The public sensed that healthcare was a victory for Obama, and maybe for the Democrats, but not for the country—and contrary to Democratic hopes, public support for the measure has continued to drop to as low as 34 percent in some polls. A significant majority, some 58 percent, now wish to repeal the entire bill, according to likely voters questioned in a late October poll by Rasmussen.