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Change yourself: Obama gets message from voters

American voters have delivered a sour warning to President Barack Obama just two years after he celebrated his election in front of a roaring crowd -- forget the change agenda and connect with the people.

world Updated: Nov 03, 2010 16:51 IST

American voters have delivered a sour warning to President Barack Obama just two years after he celebrated his election in front of a roaring crowd -- forget the change agenda and connect with the people.

Slapped by Tuesday's midterm elections that shunted his fellow Democrats out of power in the House of Representatives and eroded their majority in the Senate, Obama must now persuade Americans that he understands their frustrations and sees fixing the economy as his No 1 priority.

If he cannot, he risks being turned out of office himself in 2012.

Opinion polls had predicted the swing toward the Republicans for months, with voters anxious about a 9.6 unemployment rate, and less than appreciative of policy achievements including healthcare reform and financial services reform.

Obama and the Democrats sought to convince Americans that without measures such as last year's $814 billion stimulus package the recession would have been even longer and deeper. But Republicans got the upper hand in message delivery.

Obama now faces two big challenges -- to get newly empowered Republicans to work with him on measures to revive economic growth, and to find ways to connect with middle-class Americans, many of whom view him as aloof and cerebral.

Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University, said Obama's "default setting is solving policy problems."

"I think that weakens his political skills," Greenstein said, adding that Obama will need to "invest more time in explaining himself" and his policies to the public.

'Back against the wall'
Obama's first post-election effort at that will come on Wednesday when he holds a news conference at 1 pm EDT (1700 GMT). He is likely to put a focus on jobs and the economy, but will also offer a glimpse of how he is digesting his biggest political setback since taking office in January 2009.

If Obama feels the pain of defeat, he is unlikely to show it.

"He's got a reputation of being at his best when his back is against the wall," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.

"Staying relatively unflappable in tough times is a leadership resource although it's not always crowd pleasing."

"He's not emotive or exaggeratedly contrite the way some of his critics might want him to be. But he does he seem to be entirely ready to deal with the reality of the situation but also to assess his own political prospects," Buchanan added.

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Obama immersed himself in campaigning, trying to rekindle the enthusiasm of his 2008 run for office, when he electrified crowds with his rhetorical ease and promise of change.

His task this year was more prosaic -- to make the case for staying the course. He told voters that his policies to date had represented change for the better and warned that Republicans would move the country backward.

But the election results suggested many were unpersuaded.

'Roll up their sleeves'
Obama and his aides have been careful over the last few weeks to say little about the post-election strategy.

But in interviews, the president has suggested that he will try put Republicans on the spot and challenge them to work with him, rather than to focus solely on obstruction of his agenda.

If Republicans decline to work with him, the White House is betting that they will pay the price in 2012.

"I think it's going to be important for Republicans to recognize that the American people aren't simply looking for them to stand on the sidelines; they're going to have to roll up their sleeves and get to work," Obama said in an interview with the National Journal
last month.

In a phone call after the results, Obama told John Boehner, the likely next Speaker of the House of Representatives, that he looked forward to finding common ground with Republicans to "move the country forward and get things done for the American people."

He conveyed the same message in a call to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Clinton, Reagan ... Obama?
During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised -- as many presidential hopefuls have before him -- a new era of 'post-partisan' politics.

But Republicans complain they have been shut out over the last two years as Obama shielded himself behind his big Democratic majorities in Congress to push his agenda through.

Now he doesn't have a choice as he gets to work on what will likely be far less ambitious legislative goals.

His predicament is difficult but not impossible.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both had approval ratings close to -- and even lower than -- the 45 percent level where Obama's popularity now stands and both suffered big midterm setbacks in congressional elections.

But both presidents went on to win reelection.

"Obama has his haters but his job approval and favorability are higher than Reagan and Clinton at a comparable point in their presidency," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"Obama will bounce back if and when the economy picks up some steam and he successfully manages an end to the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan."