Still, Obama grimly faced a need to both regroup and recoup losses 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 he’s been trying to push through Congress.
In one of the country’s most traditionally liberal states, Brown rode a wave of voter anger to defeat Democrat Martha 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.
Brown, however, maintained in an interview Wednesday morning that claiming the election was a referendum on Obama would be oversimplifying what had happened there. Nor, he said, was it merely a matter of voters rejecting Coakley.
Asked on NBC’s "Today" show if the election was a referendum on Obama, he replied, "No, it’s bigger than that."
"I just focused on what I did, which is to talk about the issues – terror, taxes and the health care plan," he said. "I don’t think it was anything that she did." Brown noted that he was able to establish himself as a strong candidate by traveling across the state. "People enjoyed the message."
He called the Obama-backed health care system "not good for our state." And he said he believes he offered voters the vision of a public servant who would vote in Washington for whatever is best, "whether it’s a good Democratic idea or a Republican idea."
At the White House, advisers downplayed the notion that the vote was an indictment against health care reform. Still, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview with MSNBC 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."
Administration officials acknowledged that voter anger was intense but 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," Axelrod said. "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."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell 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.
Brown will become the 41st Republican in the 100-member Senate, which could allow the GOP to block the health care bill. Democrats needed Coakley to win for a 60th vote to thwart Republican filibusters.
Brown became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from supposedly true-blue Democratic Massachusetts since 1972.
"I have no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. "There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient."
Brown will finish Kennedy’s unexpired term, facing re-election in 2012. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged to seat Brown immediately, a hasty retreat from pre-election Democratic threats to delay his inauguration until after the health bill passed.
Brown led by 52 percent to 47 percent with 100 percent of precincts counted. The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, who is no relation to Edward Kennedy, had less than 1 percent.
The local election played out against a national backdrop of animosity and resentment from voters over persistently high unemployment, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and partisan wrangling over health care.
On Wednesday, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said Americans were breathing "a sigh of relief" over the potential derailing of the health care bill.
"People across the country are saying, ‘Slow it down,’ " Steele said Wednesday.
But David Plouffe, who directed Obama’s presidential campaign, rejected calls to scrap the bill. "We have a good health care plan," he said. "We need to pass that. We have to lead."
Brown’s victory was so sweeping, he even won in the Cape Cod community where Kennedy, the longtime liberal icon, died of brain cancer last August.
For weeks considered a long shot, the 50-year-old Brown seized on voter discontent to overtake Coakley in the campaign’s final stretch. His candidacy energized Republicans, including backers of the "tea party" protest movement, while attracting disappointed Democrats and independents uneasy with where they felt the nation was heading.
Even before the first results were announced, administration officials were privately accusing Coakley of a poorly run campaign and playing down the notion that Obama or a toxic political landscape had much to do with the outcome.
Coakley’s supporters, in turn, blamed that very environment, saying her lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas and after the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing, which Obama himself said showed a failure of his administration.