A year later, Democrats find themselves on the defensive

WASHINGTON — Last January, Democrats were streaming into Washington eager to celebrate not just the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, but also their party's ascendancy from coast to coast.

They'd gained ground in once-Republican turf such as the Mountain West and the Border South, added to their majorities in Congress and topped it all by seizing the presidency. "Yes, we can," a triumphant Obama trumpeted, and the country seemed to cheer in agreement.

Now, the country seems to be yelling back, "No, you can't," and putting the Democrats on the defensive heading into next fall's elections, when the entire House of Representatives, 37 seats in the Senate and 39 governor's offices are up for election.

The president's poll numbers have dropped. The party's top domestic agenda item, health care, is unpopular. Its candidates lost key statewide races in New Jersey and Virginia in November, and now high-profile Democrats such as Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd say they'll retire rather than risk losing next fall.

Whether it's caused by a backlash against the Democratic agenda or the natural swing of the pendulum against the party that's in power at a time of economic struggle, the result is the same: trouble for the Democrats.

Clifford Young, a pollster for Ipsos Public Affairs, sees a normal turn against the party in power, saying the Democrats overstated the significance of the 2008 election results.

"It was basically an election for change, so it favored the party out of power," Young said. "But it didn't say anything about a major shift in values. We didn't see a huge shift in values that would favor the Democrats in the long term."

Either way, the Democratic Party's push to build a durable political majority is stalling.