Voters have presented a major test for President Obama and his agenda — a hostile Republican-led House swept in by anger at the establishment.
The Republican election sweep turns over power to a party that ran on promises to slash the size of government and repeal Obama's signature legislative accomplishment: health care reform.
"There's a high probability of gridlock," said John Rother, AARP executive vice president for political strategy and international affairs.
Many of the issues on the table are critical to older Americans, such as health care, taxes, Medicare, jobs and Social Security.
The new House lineup — the largest upheaval since Newt Gingrich's GOP revolution in 1994 — means Republicans will also wield the legislative branch's investigative powers, which could be used to probe inside the Obama administration.
In the Senate, Republicans couldn't muster the seats needed to clinch a majority, but they gained enough to have a major impact in a chamber where the rules give great power to every single senator. Republicans will have enough votes to filibuster and block votes on legislation.
"The Senate is going to be a legislative killing field under any scenario," said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Obama also must face the reality of a public angry at everyone in government. Obama's approval rating is just 46 percent among voters 50 and older, according to Gallup. If there's any consolation for him, it might be in the fact that the public thinks even less of Congress — only 14 percent of those 50 and older approve of Congress.
The combination of voter rage and the newly invigorated Republican House majority means that many of the grand plans Obama had for the second half of his term likely will be unrealized. Instead, he will spend time defending existing programs like health care reform, and finding areas where he can work with Republicans.
"We're going to need to work together — Democrats and Republicans and independents — to get it all done. But, you know what, so far we're not seeing that from the other party," Obama said on Sunday in Cleveland.
The two parties may never reach agreement on the hottest topics of the day, but some smaller issues might be ripe for bipartisan accord. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, for instance, in recent weeks talked about working with Congress on tax cuts for businesses to encourage investment and purchasing.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said he doubts Republicans will succeed in rolling back the parts of Obama's agenda that already have passed because the president, after all, still carries veto power in his back pocket.
"The question is, is there any forward thrust in the next two years?" Hess said.
Obama will have a few options for how to approach life with a new Republican partner in Congress. Political experts say he can push some ideas through regulation and executive orders; he can try to work with Republicans as President Clinton did after the 1994 election; or he can lie low and hope the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot and suffer in the 2012 election.
"I think he might just find a bomb shelter, [and] use the veto where he has to use the veto," said Hess, who served in the White House under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.
Obama is unlikely to work with Republicans as much as Clinton did. Obama showed that he is less willing to jettison issues that are important to him when he stuck by his ambitious health care overhaul in the face of Republican opposition, Hess said. Clinton, in contrast, jettisoned his own health care plan when he ran into gale-force GOP resistance.
Obama may search for lower-profile issues, like trade pacts and education policy changes, where Republicans are likely to work with him, Hess said.
That approach, like relying on executive powers, will lead Obama to stick to measures that are less sweeping.
"The executive branch can do a lot on its own through rule-making and executive orders," Rother said. "But not the big stuff."
Join/Renew for Just $16 A Year
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner