Top of their agenda was the president’s cherished and hard-fought healthcare reforms.
The mid-term voting results delivered a stinging blow to Obama and saw his Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives, although they kept a majority in the Senate.
The result reflected Americans’ anxiety about their livelihoods and anger about the economy. The outcome was the House’s biggest party turnover in more than 70 years.
Obama now faces the potential for legislative gridlock that could stall his agenda in the final half of his term. Even with the Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, he spent his first two years battling to pass legislation.
In a news conference last night Obama took some responsibility for the election thrashing.
He acknowledged that the public was “deeply frustrated” with the pace of the economic recovery and said one lesson from the results was that he had not made enough progress in creating jobs.
“No one party will be able to dictate where we go from here,” he said, a clear warning to Republicans that he won’t simply bow to their demands for a sharply conservative switch in economic policy.
And although he said he would listen to Republican ideas to improve the healthcare system he would not scrap his changes to it.
The first challenge to his plans came just hours after the Republicans’ victory was confirmed.
John Boehner, who is due to become the new House leader in January, claimed a voter mandate to roll back the healthcare overhaul, calling it a “monstrosity”.
Trying to do that, however, is likely to prove almost impossible with Democrats still in control of the Senate. Obama also still holds his veto power and the Republicans do not have sufficient numbers to override.
Boehner pledged that Republicans will use their new House majority to seek a “smaller, less costly, and more accountable government.” He said he hoped Obama would join them.
The elections were also the biggest test yet of the two-year-old ultra-conservative tea party movement, angered by what it sees as the excessive growth of government.
It produced a crop of Republican candidates often at odds with the party establishment, and some of them won key races.
For the Republican Party, there was no historical precedent to guide them in their dealings with these new tea party-backed members of Congress, who were likely to demand radically conservative legislative solutions to the country’s problems.
Incomplete returns showed the Republican Party picked up at least 60 House seats and led for four more, far in excess of what was needed for a majority. About two dozen races remained too close to call by early evening.
The Republicans’ victory eclipsed the 54-seat pickup by the so-called “revolution” that retook the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and the 56-seat Republican gain in 1946.
On their night, Republicans also gained at least six Senate seats
By yesterday afternoon the Republicans had captured 239 House seats and were leading for four more, while Democrats had won 184 and led for eight.
As Mr Obama digested the not-unexpected change in fortunes, he phoned Mr Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell with congratulations.
Republicans needed to gain 10 seats to take control of the 100-member Senate. By this afternoon Democrats had 51 seats, including two independents, to 46 for Republicans. Three were not yet decided – in Alaska, Colorado and Washington state.