RICHMOND, Va. — Eager to drain the 2009 elections of drama and import, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs claimed Tuesday night that President Barack Obama was “not watching returns.”
You can be sure that he is studying them closely now: The off-year elections were, in two big races, anunmistakable rebuke of Democrats, reshuffling Obama’s political circumstances in ways likely to have severe near-term consequences for his policy agenda and larger governing strategy.
Independents took flight from Democrats. They suffered humiliating gubernatorial losses in traditionally Democratic New Jersey, where Obama lent his prestige in a pair of eleventh-hour campaign rallies Sunday, and in Virginia, which had been trending leftward and just last year was held up as an example of how Obama was redrawing the political map in his favor.
Tuesday night’s trends were emphatically not in Obama’s favor. Among those paying closest attention are dozens of Democrats who won formerly Republican congressional districts in 2006 and 2008 and are up for reelection in 2010. Many of these pickups that powered the Democrats’ recapture of Congress came in Southern and border states, or in the Ohio River Valley, where political conditions are similar to those in Virginia.
Obama now faces a much tougher challenge persuading these mostly moderate Democrats to put themselves further at risk by backing such liberal priorities as expanding government’s role in heath care or limiting greenhouse gases.