WASHINGTON — Two years ago, Barack Obama promised change. Tuesday, the voters made a change of their own.
In a tidal wave of anger and anxiety, they voted President Barack Obama's Democrats out of office from coast to coast, sweeping them out of power in the House of Representatives and slashing their once near-invincible numbers in the Senate. Democrats appeared likely to hold a narrow Senate majority.
The vote changed the balance of power in Washington, slammed the brakes on Obama's agenda, and ignited anew the central question of what the country wants from its government. It also reopened debate over whether either major political party is anywhere near forging a durable majority coalition.
One passionate phenomenon more than any other colored the politics of 2010 — the "tea party" grassroots rebellion, aimed first at establishment Republicans, then at the Democrats who controlled Washington until Tuesday. Tea party backed Senate candidates won in Florida and Kentucky — holding those seats for the GOP — but fell short in Delaware, where Republicans hoped to pick up the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.
Ultimately, though, Tuesday's vote was most about Obama, and about the country that sent him to the White House with great hopes, then watched in mounting frustration as unemployment climbed despite his massive expansion of government spending and debt.
"This president has overpromised and underdelivered. People expected more change than they got," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Americans are trying to issue a midterm correction to Obama, to nudge him back to the middle, where they thought he was when they elected him. They're surprised he's as liberal as he's been."
Most presidential parties lose seats in the House of Representatives in the president's first midterm election; since 1960, the average loss has been 22.6 seats.
Over the past 80 years, only two presidents have seen their party gain House seats in their first midterm elections — Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002. Each had unusual circumstances — voters rallied to FDR's Democrats as he marshaled the federal government to fight the Great Depression and to Bush's Republicans in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
However, the wholesale rejection of Obama's party Tuesday was deeper and more emphatic than average.
Why? One key reason is the economy. Although it's rebounded weakly from its collapse, the recovery has been painfully slow, and unemployment remains woefully high at 9.6 percent.
For voters, the economy eclipsed all other issues Tuesday, according to exit polls; more than 80 percent of voters said they're worried about the country's direction and about half said they think that Obama's policies are hurting the country.
"We need change in a conservative way. Stop the spending and stop the taxes," said Olivia Quintana, 46, a financial analyst voting in West Kendall, Fla.
Any president should expect to be punished in a bad economy. Facing his first midterm elections during the recession of 1982, Ronald Reagan's Republican Party lost 26 House seats.
"If the unemployment rate were 6 percent, we wouldn't be having this conversation today," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Obama also overpromised, encouraged by an often enthusiastic news media that greeted his candidacy and election with comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and FDR. The self-proclaimed apostle of "hope" and "change" set himself up to disappoint voters.
Expectations were great.
He said, for example, that his $814 billion stimulus package would keep unemployment from topping 8 percent. It quickly topped 10 percent and remains near there.
He promised to change the way Washington works, but he eventually resorted to backroom deals to push a health care overhaul through Congress.
He kept troops in Iraq, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and kept open the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — to the disappointment of young and liberal voters who helped propel him to the White House.
A second major factor: Obama and Democrats in Congress overreached. After winning control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, Democrats thought the country wanted a sweeping expansion of government programs, as in FDR's New Deal in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s.
Liberals surely did. But most independents didn't, and conservatives rejected it as socialism.
Obama never successfully sold the health care law to the American people. By Election Day, it was difficult to find a Democrat running on support for the proposal they thought just months ago was an historic victory.
"People didn't like health care, it got passed despite their opposition, and they're taking revenge," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut.
Obama also fell short in convincing the country that his stimulus package was well-designed or wise. He recently admitted that he was wrong to think the money would have an impact quickly and wrong to believe there were "shovel-ready" road projects. He also never managed to inform the public that his stimulus included tax cuts for everyone, not just spending.
"Do you think Bill Clinton would have gone a day without reminding people he cut taxes?" asked Sabato.
It wasn't all Obama's fault. In one way, voters Tuesday corrected themselves after overreaching in the last two elections.
Angry at George W. Bush and Republican rule over the war in Iraq, mushrooming deficits and a collapsing economy, voters in 2006 and 2008 sent 15 new Democrats to the Senate and 54 new Democrats to the House.
Many were from conservative districts. On Tuesday voters in many of those districts reverted to their natural state, throwing the Democrats out and returning Republicans.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010