Analysts are taking away from last week's election results mostly the same theories they arrived with. Interesting that so much new information has changed nobody's mind. I am no exception.
Everybody agrees that the economy was a huge part of the Democrats' problem: fairly or unfairly, the party in power got the blame. Beyond this, for progressives, the key thing was lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base--for which liberals blame Obama's appeasement of Republicans. For conservatives, it was almost the opposite: the vitality of the tea party in reaction to Obama's overreaching. For people in the middle, it was that swing voters were battered by the economy and agreed with conservatives more than with liberals about whether Obama had overreached or underreached. In short, a disappointed Democratic base, an energized GOP base, and the migration of independents from Obama.
Hard to judge the relative importance of these forces, and beyond a certain point, why try? The main thing (which a lot of analysts are strangely reluctant to admit) is that it was all of the above. Once you understand that, you see Obama's difficulty between now and 2012.
Obama cannot be guilty of both overreaching and underreaching, but he can be at fault for arousing those contradictory impressions in different segments of the electorate. This, as I have been arguing these past weeks and months, is exactly what he has done, so consistently it might almost have been by design. Again and again, he staked out a position to the left of the one he eventually settled for. The staking-out alarmed the center and right; the settling-for-less disappointed the left; and, crucially, the mostly defensible positions he eventually retreated to lacked a champion. Instead of infuriating one extreme or the other, which was unavoidable, he infuriated both, all the while failing to talk to the middle. Nothing in the campaign of 2008 suggested this degree of political incompetence.