US President Barack Obama admitted on Wednesday he suffered a "shellacking" in mid-term elections, but would not concede the rout represented a massive repudiation of his transformative domestic agenda.
A chastened president instead blamed the loss of the House of Representatives and Republican gains in the Senate on deep voter frustration at the sluggish recovery and his failure to clean up the "ugly mess" in Washington.
"It feels bad," Obama said, digesting his defeat in a White House news conference setting the tone for a looming period of divided government and political confrontation in which he must now chart his 2012 reelection bid.
He took "direct responsibility" for the sorry state of the US economy, saying voters' concerns and frustration about the slow pace of progress drove them to oust Democrats and usher in a Republican wave.
"I have got to do a better job -- just like everybody else in Washington does," the president said.
Savoring deep countrywide gains, Republican leaders promised to seek common ground where possible, but warned voters had sent a signal that Obama's reform plans had gone too far and must be halted.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, in line to replace House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a Democrat -- in January, said Obama must "change course."
He called the president's signature health reform law a "monstrosity."
But in her first post-election interview, Pelosi said she had "no regrets" about her tenure as the first woman speaker, and blamed the Democrats' major losses to the poor economy.
"If people don't have a job, they're not too interested in how you intend for them to have a job. They want to see results," she told ABC television's "World News."
With pundits already warning Tuesday's rout could augur ill for Obama's reelection hopes, the president noted that his predecessors Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had suffered mid-term pain, but won second terms.
"I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night," he said, noting how hard it was in the White House "bubble" to feel the pain of ordinary Americans.
But Obama repeatedly declined to concede that his sweeping political agenda, including health care reform, had extended beyond his 2008 mandate.
And he urged Democrats and Republicans to seek common ground on creating jobs and improving the economy.
Republicans, bouncing back from their own election drubbing by Obama in 2008, had picked up 60 seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives by midday Wednesday, more than the 39 they needed for a majority.
They also grabbed an extra six seats in the 100-member Senate, with two outstanding races yet to be decided, setting the stage for a likely gridlock in Washington, despite voter demands for both parties to work together.
Republican leaders spoke the language of compromise, but left no doubt that they felt emboldened by the election to turn back the social reform drive that Obama launched after his euphoric election.
Eric Cantor, Boehner's number two, saw the results as less of a vote of confidence for Republicans than an angry repudiation of incumbent US politicians.
"The American people have had it with Washington. Last night's vote was a vote to say, you know what, Washington better start listening to the people again."
Obama's top Senate ally Harry Reid meanwhile savored his victory over conservative Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, and acknowledged Obama was in a "hole," but argued history suggested he could bounce back.
"We have to work together. We have so many problems in this country that we can't have people saying no to everything," Reid told MSNBC television.
The Republican rout is all the more stunning given the moribund state of the party after the Democrats' sweeping victory of 2008 and is evidence of a period of sharp volatility in US politics ahead of the looming White House race.
Democrats will hand over the House leaving a historic legacy, including health care reform and a Wall Street overhaul, and claim they staved off a second Great Depression.
But they paid a heavy price for the sluggish economic recovery that has yet to be felt nationwide, with unemployment pegged at a stubborn 9.6 percent.
In a true embarrassment for Obama, Republicans won his former US Senate seat, as Mark Kirk beat presidential friend Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois.
Democrats did manage to reclaim the governor's mansion in the most populous state, California, as Jerry Brown defeated former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Republicans were jubilant.
"We've come to take our government back!" cried Tea Party hero Rand Paul, after winning a Senate seat in Kentucky.
He warned of a "Tea Party tidal wave," in a coming-of-age moment for the movement set up to challenge what it calls Obama's "big-government" takeover of American life.