WASHINGTON (AP) — The election means a new reality for many politicians. For most Americans, grim reality remains the same.
The crushing remnants of the Great Recession didn't change with Tuesday's votes. National joblessness still is almost 10 percent, more than 2 million households are in foreclosure, bankruptcies are near record levels. And none of it's showing much sign of abating anytime soon.
Again, the nation's voters declared they wanted change. But the brutal truth is that chances are slim a divided government would agree on any measures to prod a swift turnaround. It's largely out of the politicians' hands — regardless of who is in charge.
The Federal Reserve will weigh in Wednesday, when it meets to decide its next move on the economy. But even it is running out of options, and a long slog to full recovery is expected no matter what it does. It meets the day after an election in which economic woe fueled an antiestablishment fervor.
Americans appeared ready to take out their anger on the party in power. That was just two years after they elected President Barack Obama as Wall Street collapsed.
Republicans were all but certain to post huge gains at all levels of government on Tuesday, probably large enough to rise to power in the House if not the Senate. That would be a stunning rebuke to a Democratic president and his Capitol Hill allies who — as the economy tanked — pumped in enormous amounts of money to try to stop the slide.
An Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll results and pre-election polls showed that voters were expressing dissatisfaction with Obama and the Congress but they didn't have a favorable view of either the Democratic or Republican parties. They also were intensely dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working.
But the economy was by far their top concern, with no other issue coming close. Nearly all voters were worried about the future direction of the economy, and about 4 in 10 said they are worse off financially than they were two years ago.
The elections played out with nearly 15 million Americans still without work. There was enormous skepticism toward the government's $814 billion stimulus program, fierce anger over financial and auto bailouts that Obama inherited or initiated, and worries about a national debt that has grown to $13.6 trillion — more than the nation's gross domestic product.
Each party suggested that it alone had the answer for future prosperity. Republicans argued that Obama's policies were making times tougher, while Democrats claimed that the GOP would return to the policies that caused the financial meltdown.
Now, they'll have to work together — if they can.
Likely to have fewer allies on Capitol Hill, Obama will have to figure out how far he's willing to bend to pass his agenda ahead of the 2012 presidential election. And, with voters watching for results, the GOP will all but certainly have to retool its opposition to his entire legislative platform or risk being booted from office in the next election.
If there is a model for the way forward in recent history, it's provided by President Bill Clinton, who established himself as more of a centrist by working with Republicans to pass welfare reform after Democrats lost their grip on Congress in 1994. But Obama and the Republicans would be hard pressed to find a similar defining issue that would address economic anxiety.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's election, talk of comity and civility is certain. But, as is the Washington way, that will probably soon give way to gridlock and partisan bickering. Especially with a Democratic president on the cusp of a re-election bid and a Republican Party certain to try to derail him.
There will be little or no appetite among Republicans for more spending to try to invigorate the economy and the job market. Democrats, too, probably would cringe after an electoral shellacking in the wake of passing costly legislation that expanded government.
Forecasts are gloomy.
The economy and job market is expected to improve only slightly next year. Experts don't see the unemployment rate falling below 9 percent in 2011 — and some say it won't drop to pre-recession levels below 6 percent until at least 2018.
Still, fears of a second recession seem to have waned. And the economy is making steady gains, although growth is much slower than expected. Experts predict the economy will expand just 2.7 percent next year, a pace too slow to lower unemployment. And consumer spending is to rise just 2.5 percent as most Americans focus on rebuilding their savings.
Sure, it's progress but ...
One in 10 Americans can't find a job. Many have stopped looking. Their home equity has fallen. So have the values of their stocks and pensions.
They still feel helpless.
And until they don't, Obama, his Democrats, Republicans — and Washington in general — all stand to lose.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.
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