The Rose Garden Path

First thought on Tuesday’s elections: There’s a lot of firing going on in America, and now that includes politicians. Seems only fair and will likely continue. I don’t think voters in New Jersey and Virginia were saying, “Oh the Democrats are awful, and we hate them,” nor were they saying, “Republicans are wonderful, and we love them.” The voters were being practical, and thinking policy: “Will he raise my taxes?” In Jersey, they fired the incumbent governor because they couldn’t imagine the state getting off its current trajectory (high unemployment, high taxes, high spending) with him there. And they’re certain they have to get off their current trajectory or they’re sunk.

Both states hired new governors. The good news for the GOP is that they hired Republicans. The bad news is that if the Republicans don’t make progress, they’ll fire them too.

Second, it’s too simple to say this was a vote against Obama. Yes, he went to Jersey three times and draped himself like a shawl around the Democratic incumbent. But the crowds showed and nobody booed and everyone had a good time. What happened actually is more interesting. They just didn’t listen to him. Mr. Obama told Jersey to vote for Jon Corzine, and they didn’t. They don’t hate him, they’re just not hearing him. That’s new. They’re warning him: Hey you with the health-care obsession, shape up or you’ll get shipped out!

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President ObamaThere’s a new detachment between the president and the electorate he won a year ago by 9.5 million votes. The reason: In 2009, the Democrats who run the White House and Congress chose to go down one path at the exact moment voters went down a different one. The voters, frustrated and then alarmed, waited to fire the first available Democrat, and this week they did. Mr. Obama carried Democratic Jersey by more than 15 points exactly one year ago. The Democratic governor lost by nearly five points this week. That is a 20-point swing. Mr. Obama won Virginia a year ago by six points. The Democratic candidate for governor lost by more than 18 points. That is a 24-point plummet. (The congressional race in upstate New York was too messy, too local, and too full of jumbly facts to yield a theme that coheres.)

The path the president and the Democrats of Congress chose has been called the big-bang strategy. In January 2009 they had the big mo and could claim a mandate. The strategy was to give their first year to 2008 domestic policy pledges: health-care reform, climate change, empowering unions, etc.

But reality came in and stole the mandate, stopped the mo. The reality is that over the past 10 months the great recession settled in, broadened its presence, and became part of the national landscape. It became the big bad thing for normal people. It became a literal daily threat (“Is Daddy going to lose his job?”) that underscored a chronic anxiety. That anxiety is that spending at all levels of government, and the tax demands it will bring and has brought, will make the overall economy worse. If Daddy manages to keep his job in this round of cutbacks, he won’t be safe in the next round.

A president has only so much time. Mr. Obama gives a lot of his to health care. But the majority of voters in New Jersey and Virginia told pollsters they were primarily worried about joblessness and the economy. They’re on another path, and they don’t like the path he’s chosen. A majority in a Gallup poll out Wednesday said they now think the president governs from the left, not the middle. The majority did not expect that a year ago.

The president chose promises made before the recession fully took hold, rather than more pressing and pertinent public concerns. In the language of marketing that has become the language of politics he thereby, in his first year, damaged his brand.

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Professional politicians say great things after an election this stark, great in the sense that they reveal whether they have a tropism toward truth or a tropism toward . . . let us call it other things, including mindless spin. “We won last night!” Nancy Pelosi crowed. “I think we had a major victory,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) on “Morning Joe.” Mika Brzezinski was so delighted by his lurch from reality that she asked him to repeat it, and he did.

Interestingly, the president has said nothing.

Under the heading tropism toward truth we have what Sen. Mark Warner, himself a former Virginia governor, told Politico: “We got walloped.”

That was admirably candid. Some party activists said the problem was with Democrats such as Virginia’s gubernatorial nominee, Creigh Deeds, not more fully embracing Mr. Obama in their campaigns. White House adviser David Axelrod echoed this to Politico, saying that in previous elections, beleaguered candidates learned that “the history of running away from a president is not very good.”

My goodness, throw the drowning man an anvil. This goes beyond loyalty. All White House staffs tend to hypnotize themselves into thinking their greatest asset is the president. George W. Bush’s people thought this way too—the guy is magic, associate yourself with him and you’ll win big. That’s what they told candidates in 2006, when Mr. Bush dragged them down. Most modern White House staffs, no matter who the president, wind up at a point where they’re like the men around Stalin. Stalin would give a speech, and his commissars would all wildly applaud. The applause would go on a long time, but it had to end at some point, so Vladimir sitting up front would, in an attempt to be helpful, would stop applauding and sit down. Everyone else would follow. The next week Stalin would give a speech and everything would be the same except Vladimir was no longer in the front row. He was in the gulag. This is how White House staffs come to think: Never be the first one to stop applauding.

Democrats in the House, especially the moderates and so-called blue dogs, really should stop applauding at this point, and signal to the president that he’s been handed a gift by the voters: a rough suggestion as to a midcourse correction.

Politico asked if the White House would learn anything through what happened Tuesday, and if a correction was possible. I doubt it. It is odd to see such hard-line tough-guy political players—and that’s how they see themselves and in part are—governed, really, by abstractions, by things that look big-time but are actually small-time: our legacy, our greater historical meaning, the Aristotelian purity of getting at least a partial public option established so that it will grow and history will look back and say, “Ah, after 40 years of waiting they delivered what America never had and needed.”

Mr. Obama and the House leadership may be too deep into health care to make a shift now and get in line with the American people’s concerns. But they should start paying attention to what the people are saying. What happened Tuesday isn’t a death knell, but it is a fire alarm: Something’s wrong, fix it, change course. Show humility. Bow to the public. “Public opinion is everything,” Lincoln is said to have said. It is. It can be changed and it can be shaped, but it always has to be listened to. This White House has gotten bad at listening. It paid the price for that on Tuesday.