The millions of Americans voting in midterm elections Tuesday were not always sure what they wanted, or even whom. But many knew they were unhappy—uneasy about the economy, frustrated with the direction of the country and dissatisfied with politics.
On an Election Day that seemed a long way from 2008, disappointment was the theme.
"I’d like to find somebody to blame," said Kimberly Abrudan, a customer service manager who had voted at a Delaware charter school for Democrat Chris Coons for Senate. "It would make things a lot easier. But I’m not convinced that it’s any one man."
Abrudan said she voted for Barack Obama and felt let down that he had not been able to bridge the partisan divide and bring Americans together. If she could speak to the president in private, she conceded, "I might shake him around a bit."
The sentiment was not hard to find across the country in an election that took place against a backdrop of persistently high unemployment, no sign of real improvement in the economy and politics roiled by division.
Vicki Goode of Boyle County, Ky., had voted for Obama as well, and said she felt disappointed by his first two years in office and by what she characterized as a legislative logjam in Washington.
"I expected more sweeping change," she said after voting for Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for Senate, over tea party-backed Republican Rand Paul.
Goode owns a gift store called Magnolia Cottage. Fewer people are buying gifts than they did two years ago, and those who come in aren’t browsing as much—just finding what they want and buying that one thing. Her husband was out of work for 16 months.
Just about everywhere, this election felt far removed from the last. Two years ago, after all, there was no tea party. Now it’s a force in American politics. Two years ago, the nation was in financial shock. Now hard times are all too familiar.
"You still have a lot of people out of work," said James Price, a lawyer in Indianapolis who voted a straight Republican ticket. "We’re losing a lot of jobs. We have massive amounts of debt."
In Denver, there were those like Josie Hart-Genter, who said the administration had done exactly what it promised to—expand health care and pass an economic stimulus bill—and were proud. And those like Javier Flores, who wished Obama had been more aggressive on gay rights.
Just after sunrise, voters trickled into the elections office in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., a city dotted with boarded-up storefronts and "For Sale" signs on empty homes.
Alan Satterwhite, a technology executive, said he was not worried about his own job but was concerned about the broader economy and blamed Congress for it. He voted for conservative candidates but said he was frustrated with both parties.
"No one is stepping forward with collaboration, and that needs to change," he said.
Change from the change: It was another demand voiced by voters around the nation Tuesday, even some who had embraced Obama’s call for "Change We Can Believe In."
In the intervening two years, American politics was buffeted by turmoil—town hall meetings that devolved into shouting matches, persistent questions about the motives of leaders on both sides. Enough to spawn an entire rally in the name of restoring sanity.
Charles Voirin, who lives in St. Petersburg and is close to retirement, had seen enough.
He was frustrated that the president had not been more assertive during his first two years. But then he was disappointed in the crop of candidates all around this year. He said he wants more moderates.
"There are more extremes on both sides," he said. "We’re getting nothing done."
Others were more blunt in assigning blame, pointing fingers at the top.
"He’s going to bankrupt this country," said Paul Edwards, a retired naval engineer in Indianapolis. He was angry that his health care costs are rising and said he disliked Obama’s overhaul. The president says it will reduce costs in the long term, but Edwards is having none of it.
"I worked hard for 30 years, and all I see is my money being eaten up by somebody who thinks he knows how to spend it better than me," Edwards said.
Obama had plenty of supporters.
"I think it took a long time for us to get into the situation that we are," said LaVeeda Garlington, an attorney who voted a straight ticket in Silver Spring, Md., for Democrats, including Gov. Martin O’Malley. "It’s going to take a long time to get out."
While she said she didn’t agree with all the decisions the White House had made in two years, "it was a pretty full plate that the current administration inherited, and I think they need time to try to work it through."
Bill Gray, a registered Republican in San Francisco, put it in fewer words: "This poor guy. He just got stuck with it."
And then there was Benzo Jones of Las Vegas, who called himself a case study for what’s wrong with the world right now: He is renegotiating his home loan, has neighbors struggling to keep jobs and is trying, so far without success, to get a small business loan for the Web design business he runs with his wife.
"But I don’t blame Obama for that," said Jones, who was voting for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid over his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle. "I blame the banks, and I blame their greedy nature in terms of not opening up their lines on small business."
Jim Krostoski of New Britain, Conn., was ready to give someone else a try. He voted for Linda McMahon, the former professional wrestling executive running as a Republican for Senate, because he believed business people might have a better shot at getting it right than career politicians.
McMahon was never a darling of tea party voters—she beat their candidate in the Republican primary—but generally has their support. Krostoski said he thought the tea party had a chance to make a real difference in politics.
"They are angry voters and people who maybe want a change, so if they see someone different, let’s give them a shot," he said. "I mean, these guys now can’t get it right. Maybe somebody can."