Obama Politics After One Year; The Team that Rode Anger Now Has to Manage It

After riding a tidal wave of frustration and anger to the White House under the banner of "Change," President Obama and his stunned team of advisers suddenly find themselves trying their hands at anger management.

"The anger and frustration in this country about where we are economically is something that we heard and saw last night in Massachusetts," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

To emphasize the point, Gibbs used the word "anger" 16 times in the briefing to describe a hostile political climate the White House has so far ignored but must now confront.

"I think there are a lot of people that bear responsibility for some aspect of what happened last night," Gibbs said, referring to the thunderclap election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat held since 1962 by liberal Democrat and early Obama endorser Edward M. Kennedy. "Everybody bears some responsibility, certainly including the White House."

Kennedy's death in late August created the vacancy Democrats thought was safe, especially after state Attorney General Martha Coakley handily won the mid-December primary. Brown came from 30 points behind to win by five points, a margin Democrats and White House aides now concede would have been double-digits had it not been for a massive 11th-hour get-out-the-vote drive.

"The president was surprised and frustrated," Gibbs said. "The president did not expect...to lose that Senate race."

The so-called "Kennedy seat" had been in family hands - more or less - since 1952. It is now to be occupied by an insurgent Republican state senator who opposed the White House on health care, taxes and the environment carried vast swaths of a deeply blue state Obama won handily slightly more than a year ago. This startling fact has, for the very first time, triggered deep reflection and subtly conveyed doubt within the top ranks of team Obama.

"I think any reasonable person evaluates everything you know when you're in politics and there are ups and downs and this is certainly one of those cases," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told Fox. "What we're not going to abandon is the basic fundamental principles. We're just going to work very, very hard to turn this economy around, to get it moving in the right direction. We've broken the back of the recession, now we have to start growing jobs. We need to create a condition in which incomes grow and people feel more of a sense of security."

Massachusetts settled what had been a sort of theoretical argument within the White House about the meaning of November's gubernatorial loses in Virginia and New Jersey. No longer could those results be dismissed - as they were at the time - as unique fits of pique unrelated to the Obama agenda.

Consider these three sets of numbers.

In 2008, Obama won heavily Democratic Fairfax County by 109,000 votes. One year later, Republican Bob McDonnell beat Democrat Creigh Deeds in Fairfax by nearly 4,500 hundred votes. In Middlesex County, New Jersey, Obama beat Republican John McCain by more than 70,000 votes. One year later, Republican Chris Chirstie beat Gov. Jon Corzine by more than 4,700 votes. And in Lowell, Mass., about 30 miles northwest of Boston, Obama won by more than 10,000 votes in 2008. Brown beat Coakley there by 1,000 votes. This shift from blue to red can be found in all three statewide races as independents fled the Democratic banner and embraced the Republican as an agent of change.

The reason? Some political analysts believe Obama over-reached on spending and health care.

"I don't think Americans quite signed on for this much additional spending or this much health care reform," said Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The excess has caused a political reaction. For every action in politics there's an equal and opposite reaction. When you take dramatic action, you have to expect a dramatic reaction."

Axelrod said the dilemma for Obama is that he remains popular but that popularity has not translated to down ballot races. Democrats have lost all three statewide races - November governors contests in Virginia and New Jersey and Tuesday's Massachusetts Senate tilt - where the president campaigned.

"Senator-elect Brown said himself the other day, this was not a referendum on Barack Obama," Axelrod said. "I think he probably has a greater sense of this than anyone. What it is a referendum on is economic conditions in the country and a sense that Washington is still in a thrall of special interests that the agenda here doesn't necessarily match the agenda of every day people. And that's something we have to confront, understand and deal with."

The "deal with" part emerged the morning after Massachusetts as the massive health reform bill passed by the House and Senate appeared to vaporize under the white-hot heat of the Brown victory.

Obama told ABC News he wanted the Democratically controlled Congress -- now missing its filibuster-proof 60th Democratic vote in the Senate - to "coalesce" around parts of insurance reform that Republicans might embrace.

"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on," Obama told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

The White House has given up on the House passing the Senate health care bill. That means finding a middle ground with Republicans who may feel emboldened to drive a hard bargain - particularly on issues like medical malpractice reform that Democrats have long considered non-starters.

What's striking about the White House reaction on Wedneday to Brown's victory in Massachusetts is that it bears no relationship to its plans the day before - when it was still pretty clear Coakley was likely to lose.

As the votes were being counted in Massachusetts, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe was telling reporters in Washington the torturous House and Senate push for health care could not and should not die.

"My view is shame on us if we don't get this done," Plouffe said. "The health care plan's been demonized. So if you run away from it, you're still going to get attacked for supporting a health care plan with none of the benefit. The truth and reality of health care is it's gonna be a much more positive thing for the American people then the mythology that the Republicans have created."

Up until Tuesday, the White House accused Republicans of spreading serial distortions about health care reform, fomenting trumped up anger along the way. Now the White House says it must internalize a deeper message, one that it says Obama understood not so long ago but must now find a way to harness.

"The same forces that swept Obama to office in 2008 are still very much astride the country today," Axelrod said. "The same frustration among middle class Americans about the situation they're in, they're working harder than ever just to try and keep up. The best thing we can do is work vigorously on behalf of those people, work vigorously to challenge the system on their behalf. And that's what we're doing to do."

Managing anger will require a new skill set and the White House knows it has precious little time. Axelrod said after health care is resolved "one way or the other" Obama will turn toward jobs creation and financial regulatory reform - including his newly minted tax proposal on "risky" transactions of big banks and insurers.

The White House thought that issue, the big bank tax, would save Coakley. The issue was part of Coakley's closing argument in speeches and TV ads. That it failed suggests anger management is easier said than done.