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One year later, big test for big government

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President Barack Obama believes in the saving grace of the federal government.

But do the American people?

In a time of economic uncertainty and fear, that is the core question implicit — and sometimes explicit — on Election Day 2009.

After a year of sweeping, even breathtaking governmental action to revive the economy — bailouts, stimulus packages, new regulations and trillions of newly printed dollars and debt — is the country really better off and on the road to recovery?

The answer that Obama and the Democrats will hear tonight is likely to be a loud “we’re not sure.” Not that the Republicans should gloat; voters distrust their party as much, if not more.

Whatever the final tallies, it’s clear that our politics are back to square one: to the economy and what government can best do (or not do) to salvage and sustain it. The culture wars of past decades will never end, but we no longer have the luxury to dwell obsessively on matters of behavior and lifestyle.

Economic insecurity is what put candidate Obama over the top in 2008; voters put aside their cultural concerns about him. But now that same economic fear — and doubts about the wisdom of Obama’s solutions — is boosting Republican chances.

Scrape away the personal and tactical factors, and the pattern is clear in the course of the contests around the country this fall.

In Virginia, Democrats tried to derail Republican Bob McDonnell’s bid for the governorship by focusing on his roots in hard-right political evangelism. And yes, McDonnell was the product of Pat Robertson’s Regent University; and yes, McDonnell had written a thesis in 1989 expressing disdain for homosexuality, feminism and sex outside of marriage.

But in 2009, voters were far more interested in his detailed economic development plans for Virginia, and in doing what Virginians normally do in their governor’s race: express doubts about a new administration across the Potomac River. Virginians are contrarians by nature, and generally opposed to Obama-style “big government.”

In the north country of New York State, Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman came from nowhere in a special election for a U.S. House seat by stressing the same theme: deep skepticism about big-spending and pump-priming down in Washington.

The New York 23rd district voted for Obama last year, but it remains conservative by nature. Some analysts have said that Hoffman’s rise (and the corresponding fall of the GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava) was due to his hard-right positions on abortion and gay rights.

New York analysts I talk to — those who know the area well — insist that it has less to do with culture than economic theory: voters saw Scozzafava as a big spender, especially since she supported the Obama stimulus package. It’s a part of New York state in which voters are reared to distrust the theory of government (and the cost of government) they read about in the City.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine has faced a double whammy of conservative populism: not only was he tied closely to the president (whose White House nevertheless had tried to get Corzine not to run again), but Corzine is also a former partner at Goldman Sachs, the epitome of the Wall Street empire saved by Obama.

Even a relatively weak candidate, Republican Chris Christie, has been able to make a close race of it in what has become a heavily Democratic state.

It's always dangerous to extrapolate national trends from scattered local elections such as these.

And of course, as I write, we don't know the results — only which way the polls were heading in the final days. But I think in this case the message is already clear: Voters, who launched the Obama Era with so much hope a year ago, are still hopeful but they're also skeptical.

And they are once again impatient with Washington, and with big shots of any stripe — on Wall Street or the nation's capital — who seem more interested in increasing their own power than truly solving problems.