BOSTON — Republicans are rejoicing and Democrats reeling in the wake of Scott Brown's stunning triumph in a special Massachusetts Senate election, a devastating Democratic defeat that triggered soul-searching within President Barack Obama's party over how to stem further losses in November's midterm elections.
Obama himself grimly faced a need to regroup on Wednesday, the anniversary of his inauguration, in a White House shaken by the realization of what a difference a year made.
The most likely starting place was finding a way to save the much-criticized health care overhaul Democrats have been trying to push through Congress. The Democratic Party also faced a need to determine how to assuage an angry electorate, and particularly attract independent voters who have fled to the GOP after a year of Wall Street bailouts, economic stimulus spending and enormous budget deficits.
In one of the country's most traditionally liberal states, Brown rode a wave of voter anger to defeat Coakley, the attorney general who had been considered a surefire winner until just days ago. Her loss signaled big political problems for Obama and the Democratic Party this fall when House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot nationwide.
Appearing as if in a nod to voter disgust with Washington, Obama signed a directive Wednesday aimed at stopping government contracts from going to tax-delinquent companies. "We need to insist on the same sense of responsibility in Washington that so many of you strive to uphold in your own lives, in your own families, and in your own businesses," Obama said.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's Republican presidential rival in 2008, likened Brown's win to the Revolutionary War's "shot heard around the world" in Concord, Mass., in April 1775. McCain said the message was clear: "No more business as usual in Washington. Stop this unsavory sausage-making process."
White House officials acknowledged that one of the lessons from Massachusetts was the intensity of voter anger, but they said it wasn't so much with Obama as with Washington's failures in general and with the moribund economy.
"There are messages here. We hear those messages," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview with MSNBC. "There is a general sense of discontent about the economy. And there is a general sense of discontent about this town. That's why we were elected."
Added Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: "There's a tremendous amount of anger and frustration about where people are economically ... I think that's what's ultimately going to define the coming political battles."
The advisers downplayed the notion that the vote was an indictment against health care reform. But Axelrod said that officials will "take into account" what voters said Tuesday. He added, "It's not an option simply to walk away from a problem that's only going to get worse."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama has an opportunity to strike a more bipartisan approach.
"The president ought to take this as a message to recalibrate how he wants to govern and if he wants to govern from the middle we'll meet him there," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats were urging their House and Senate candidates to embrace in their campaigns against Republicans the populist appeal the president had made on Sunday as he rushed to Boston to try to save Coakley and the Senate seat held by Democrats, and specifically the late Edward M. Kennedy, for nearly a century.
His attempt didn't work but House and Senate Democrats insisted that the pitch — Democrats work for the people, Republicans work for Wall Street — was simply made too late.