A day after the Republican steamroller, a nearly contrite President Barack Obama acknowledged Wednesday that the public was upset with the pace of the economic recovery and promised to work with the new leaders of Congress on tax cuts and energy policy.
But amid the niceties, Obama cut to the reality: "It won't be easy."
The conservative sweep Tuesday that gave the GOP control of the House will further accentuate ideological differences between the two parties. Democrats lost some of their moderate members, so-called Blue Dogs like North Florida Rep. Allen Boyd, leaving a more liberal body eager to fight back.
Meanwhile, the Senate remained in Democratic hands with key victories including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"The barriers to real legislative action are very steep. The bipartisan control makes it harder," said Sarah A. Binder, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution.
Republicans quickly set up an encore debate over the health care law by announcing plans to introduce legislation to repeal it in exchange for something else.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the presumptive House speaker, sounded an inclusive note Wednesday but also reminded the president and Democrats of the overwhelming voter sentiment.
Republicans captured 60 House seats from Democrats, more than their 1994 takeover and the most for either party since 1948. The last time the House and Senate were divided in party leadership was the 1980s.
Boehner said Republicans would use their majority to cut government spending. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats must move closer to Republican positions on an array of issues.
"We'll work with the administration when they agree with the people, and confront them when they don't," McConnell said.
"So the question is," McConnell said, "how do we meet in the middle?"
President Obama, in a news conference from the East Room, suggested compromise could come on ways to spur jobs and on energy policy. He all but abandoned his "cap-and-trade" proposal to reduce carbon emissions, which Republicans assaulted as a tax and a jobs killer.
Obama said there could be room to adjust the health care law but flatly ruled out repealing it as an option. "We must find common ground in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges," he said.
He signaled compromise on the sweeping set of tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year. Obama dropped his insistence that they be allowed to expire for upper-income families, and experts were talking Wednesday of a deal to allow them all to continue for at least a year.
Obama's tone was similar to the last Democratic president who saw severe losses halfway through his first term. Bill Clinton not only lost the House but the Senate. In 1994, Clinton acknowledged the "smashing" Republican wins (Obama used the word "shellacking") and vowed to pursue more centrist policies.
Welfare reform was one of the major results of that period. So too was the government shutdown that backfired on Republicans, history the party does not want to repeat this time.
Obama called the experience "humbling" and accepted responsibility that some of his agenda, including health care and the stimulus, cost some Democrats their jobs.
"I think people started looking at all this and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive in people's lives than they were accustomed to," he said. "We thought it was necessary but, you know, I'm sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach."
He carefully reminded Republicans that they still lacked absolute power: "No one party will be able to dictate where we go from here."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she sees the national debt as an area for compromise. Though the problem began under President George W. Bush, through tax policy and the wars, it continued to grow under Democrats and was a big part of the Republican message in the midterm elections.
"It must happen. It's simply not sustainable any longer," Castor said, adding that lawmakers should look at savings in defense spending by changing the strategy to reflect the unconventional threat of terrorism.
"I don't think everyone wants to repeal health care, but if they have some ideas on how to make it better, I'd be open to them," Castor said.
Surveys of voters in Florida's U.S. Senate race, won easily by Republican Marco Rubio, showed that a plurality either want the health care law expanded (30 percent) or left as is (19 percent), while 44 percent said it should be repealed.
Bob Graham, Florida's former governor and senator, said there is a potential upside to bipartisan control of the House and Senate. "It almost forces you to get along," he said.
Something has to be done about the economy, Graham said, or voters could create another wave in 2012 — one that could threaten the new Republican House majority but also Obama, who will face re-election.
"I'm an optimist and that leads me to feel they'll figure out some way to be more attuned to the American people's desires," Graham said. "This is an opportunity to sit back and rethink."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.