Wounded in Massachusetts, frustrated Democrats on Wednesday urged the White House to focus on jobs and the economy — not the health care overhaul that's now at risk — and pressed President Barack Obama to more forcefully make their case against Republicans ahead of potentially disastrous elections this fall.
On the day after the improbable Senate election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Obama and his Democratic Party raced to re-evaluate their midterm election strategy, adjust their health care approach and assuage an angry electorate. The embarrassing defeat to the GOP in a Democratic stronghold was a bitter end to the president's first year in office, and it triggered furious party soul-searching.
"I would like the Democratic Party as a whole including its leader, the president, to speak clearly about the differences and to define those differences," Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign effort, told The Associated Press. And it's not just about Republicans and Democrats, he said: "We have to do a much better job of both engaging and delivering to independent voters."
Obama himself owned up to a failure to communicate.
In a year of hopping from crisis to crisis, he told ABC News, "we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values."
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., put it more simply, assessing the message Massachusetts sent. "Economy, economy, economy," she said.
"We need a jobs bill. We need short-term, focused strategies to create jobs, real fast," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "If the dominant message isn't about jobs and spending, we'll be making a difficult challenge exponentially more difficult."
At the Capitol, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., declared, "If there's anybody in this building that doesn't tell you they are more worried about elections today, you should absolutely slap them."
Indeed, there was a grim sense among Democrats that if the GOP could win in a traditionally deeply liberal state, Massachusetts, it could probably win anywhere.
Said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.: "Every state is now in play."
Democrats still have majority control of both the House and Senate. But Tuesday's GOP upset for the seat long held by the Sen. Edward Kennedy — following Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey last fall for Democratic-held gubernatorial seats — was a sign of serious trouble this fall. Even when the economy is strong, the party holding the White House historically loses seats in midterms.
Despite the loss that gave Republicans a 41st vote in the 100-seat Senate, neither Democrats nor most Republicans said they thought control of Congress could be up for grabs. But both parties expect big Republican gains, and fewer Democratic seats would make it more difficult for Obama to pass his agenda.
"I'm not under any illusion that we can take anything for granted. We have to fight," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
On the anniversary of his inauguration, Obama faced a need to reevaluate both his policy — specifically his endangered health care plan — and his politics in a White House stunned by a shift in the mood of the electorate from just a year earlier. Voters were hopeful and supportive then. They are cranky and belligerent now. Of utmost concern: independent voters who have fled to the GOP after a year of Wall Street bailouts, enormous budget deficits and partisan wrangling over health care.
"The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they're frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years," Obama told ABC in an interview.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters: "That anger is now pointed at us because we're in charge. And rightly so."
From the White House to Capitol Hill, Democrats appeared more determined than devastated after the Massachusetts outcome as they huddled to chart a new way forward.
Obama's sweeping health care overhaul was the most urgent matter at hand.
The president and his fellow Democrats wrestled with options now that they were one vote shy of the 60-vote Senate supermajority they were counting on to block Republican delaying tactics.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declared the overall measure dead and added: "The president ought to take this as a message to recalibrate how he wants to govern, and if he wants to govern from the middle we'll meet him there."
In light of Brown's victory, Obama said it's time to come together around a bill that can draw Republican support, too.
"The people of Massachusetts spoke," Obama said in the interview.
Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "We will move forward with their considerations in mind, but we will move forward."
Just how remained to be seen.
In the longer term, Democrats said the White House should do more to reduce unemployment, given that economists expect joblessness to remain near 10 percent through November.
The White House already has begun pivoting to a jobs agenda, and Gibbs said of the president: "We will have him continue to focus on the economy and jobs."
Several Democratic officials characterized the party rank-and-file lawmakers as frustrated by a seeming White House hesitation to get involved in high-stakes races until it's too late, like the Senate race in Massachusetts as well as the Virginia and New Jersey contests last fall.
These Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House, say there's a sense that Obama and his advisers are too cautious and more focused on his 2012 fortunes than on helping Democratic candidates get elected in 2010. They want Obama to use his White House perch to embrace his role as Democratic Party chief.
"There's no doubt that the White House, which has a big megaphone, needs to make sure that the contrasts are very clear to the public," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee, told the AP.
To be sure, Obama has started laying out a sharper contrast with Republicans by hammering them for opposing his proposed bank bailout tax. He's sought to paint Democrats on the side of taxpayers and Republicans on the side of special interests and Wall Street, trying out that pitch when he rushed to Boston in an effort to save Democrat Martha Coakley. It didn't work in just two days.
Said Menendez: "We knew we had a winning argument. We just got it too late in Massachusetts."
Despite Coakley's loss, Democrats urged their House and Senate candidates to embrace Obama's Wall Street vs. Main Street contrast to tap into voter anger.
Senate Democrats were examining their campaigns to ensure messages are calibrated to the volatile electorate and candidates are focused on jobs, the economy and spending. An edict went out from Menendez that candidates should aggressively define themselves as change agents and their Republican opponents as representing a step backward.
Republicans, for their part, reveled in Brown's victory. They have found what they believe is a surefire recipe for GOP candidates to win against a popular president — focus on opposition to his policies, downplay overtly political Republican ties, and embrace voter anger with populist appeals to ride an antiestablishment wave.
Associated Press Writers Jennifer Loven, Laurie Kellman, Ben Evans, Sam Hananel, Larry Margasak, and Jim Abrams contributed to this report.
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