We are a nation of swingers. In the last 16 years, each party has had a presidential victory and taken control of Congress in what was heralded as a realignment of American politics. Now it's happened again. House Republicans got the car keys back, to borrow Barack Obama's overused metaphor. But it wasn't a victory. The exit polls suggested the country threw them at the GOP in disgust: Here, you drive. Polls don't show much affection for the new co-leaders of American politics. According to exit polls, 41 percent of voters have an favorable view of the Republican Party, four points less than President Obama. Even Tea Party members said the GOP was on "probation."
Yes, this was an election fueled by a bad economy, but American politics is also in a dizzying cycle. Now the debate changes. With the election over, we will now move on from the argument of how you should vote and start the argument over why you voted the way you did. The post-election debate matters because it will shape the motivations of lawmakers of both parties and the expectations of voters, who want them to do something but have no faith that they can do anything. In exit polls, almost 90 percent of voters said they were worried about the future.
The House of Representatives will change from a Democratic 77-seat majority to a (smaller, but sizable) Republican majority of close to 60. The Democrats' losses were greater than the average of 36 seats during a presidency of Obama's popularity. John Boehner is now speaker of the House in a country that doesn't like his party but loves its sentiment. In exit polls, 56 percent said government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals. Nancy Pelosi will now likely find a way to gracefully exit the stage, steward of the shortest House majority since the mid-1950s.
The victory in the House was broad. Republicans won in all regions of the country. The Northeastern Republican, once thought to be found only in one of Audubon's collections, is now back in New York and New Hampshire. Of the 23 Democrats elected in 2008, 16 were defeated.
Meanwhile, old bulls like 13-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, and 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, Democrats all, were sent home.
Republicans also had a big night in the races for governor. They won in key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The GOP won control of the statehouses in all those states (some of the 19 statehouses that flipped), which means that it will control the once-every-decade process of congressional redistricting. The only good news for Democrats was in the swing state of Colorado, where John Hickenlooper won the governor's office.
If there was good news for Democrats, it was in the Senate--but it was good only relative to the grim news everywhere else. (You know you're in trouble when a loss of six seats--including the president's old seat--is the good news.) Senate Democrats retained their majority and kept their leader. Harry Reid survived.
Democrat Joe Manchin won in West Virginia by running away from the president. In California, Barbara Boxer won by embracing the president. Still, Democrats lost seats. At least three of the new crop of Republican senators can thank the Tea Party. Jim DeMint took a jab at his party leader Mitch McConnell who backed Rand Paul's opponent in the GOP primary. "I want to congratulate Rand Paul on winning a race that the leaders in his own party said he could not win," DeMint said in a statement. "Rand overcame difficult odds because he consistently stood up for conservative principles."
Of course, Mitch McConnell would argue that in Delaware and Nevada Republicans could have won if the Tea Party hadn't gotten in the way. If the conservatives are going to stick to their principles, Democrats in Washington will, too. Those who are still in office in the House are more liberal and are therefore less likely to go along with the new more conservative GOP. After having watched conservatives rise in the GOP ranks by saying "no," what's to keep them from not trying a little of that themselves?
In broad terms, the election was a rebuke of the president. In specific geographical areas, the pain was acute. Obama's home state of Illinois elected a Republican, Mark Kirk, to fill Obama's old Senate seat. The state of Ohio essentially gave the president the finger. Obama has visited the state 12 times since his inauguration. He made his last stop before Election Day in Cleveland. Vice President Joe Biden was an honorary resident of the state, party officials joked. Democrats boasted about the turnout organization being the best in the country.
After all of that, Democrats lost all five of the competitive House races in the state. They lost the Senate race. They lost the governor's race. They lost their majority in the state House of Representatives. And younger voters--who Obama and the Democrats were counting on--failed to show up, with turnout below 2008 and even 2006 levels.
John Boehner didn't claim a mandate, he claimed a repudiation. "We are witnessing a repudiation of Washington ... a repudiation of Big Government ... and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people." It's a good thing he didn't claim a mandate, because the message from the electorate wasn't clear. In exit polls, 37 percent said the highest priority of Congress should be "spending to create jobs." The nearly equal priority was reducing the budget deficit, which 37 percent said was their No. 1 goal.
Repealing health care is not a priority. 48 percent want to repeal it, but almost the same number want to expand it or leave it the same. Still, it's just not at the top of their lists. 62 percent said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Only 18 percent said that of health care. Only 39 percent of the country believes Congress should expand the Bush tax cuts for everyone, another top GOP action item. John Boehner now has the task of pushing these tricky priorities with a caucus made up of many new members who came to Washington promising to be uncompromising.
Obama extended a hand immediately to Boehner. He called the presumptive speaker, and the White House released a photo with the president looking calm and easy. Today the president will have to decide whether this election was a message that signaled unhappiness with the pace of progress, or unhappiness with the direction he was taking the country. President Bill Clinton, after the disastrous Democratic performance in the 1994 midterms, said, "I accept my share in the responsibility for the elections." But he seemed reluctant to accept a larger verdict. By his State of the Union address, he would declare the era of big government over.
Will Obama follow that path? We'll find out today at 1 p.m., when the president is scheduled to have a news conference. He can take solace in one part of the Clinton legacy, though. Two years later, after everyone had declared him dead, Clinton won re-election in a rout. Obama has to hope that the economy turns around for him the way it did for Clinton, and that the electorate does, too. He has to believe in the swing.
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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.