President Barack Obama plans a combative response if, as White House aides fear, Democrats lose Tuesday's special Senate election in Massachusetts, close advisers say.
"This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt," a senior administration official said. "It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard."
A defeat by Martha Coakley for the seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy would be embarrassing for the party -- and potentially debilitating, since Democrats will lose their filibuster-proof, 60-vote hold on the Senate.
A potential casualty: the health care bill that was to be the crowning achievement of the president's first year in office.
The health care backdrop has given the White House a strong incentive to strike a defiant posture, at least rhetorically, in response to what would be an undeniable embarrassment for the president and his party.
There won't be any grand proclamation that "the era of Big Government is over" -- the words President Bill Clinton uttered after Republicans won the Congress in the 1990s and he was forced to trim a once-ambitious agenda.
"The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall," a presidential adviser said. "The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, 'At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.'"
Whatever words Obama chooses, however, will have trouble masking the substantive reality: A Massachusetts embarrassment would strongly increase the pressure Obama was already facing to retreat or slow down the "big bang" agenda he laid out a year ago.
Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill have made clear that enthusiasm is cooling for tackling controversial cap-and-trade legislation to curb carbon emissions as the party heads into an election year. The same is true for the always-sensitive issue of immigration reform. On the fiscal front, massive deficits were already pushing Obama toward more austerity on spending.
Perceptions among the pundit class would also be brutal. An upset by Republican Scott Brown would be covered in many quarters as a repudiation of Obama, especially after Obama's last-ditch campaign appearance with Coakley 36 hours before the polls opened.
But the president's advisers plan to spin it as a validation of the underdog arguments that fueled Obama's insurgent candidacy.
"The painstaking campaign for change over two years in 2007 and 2008 has become a painstaking effort in the White House, too," the official said. "The old habits of Washington aren't going away easy."
The White House rallying cry, according to one Obama confidant, will be, "Buckle up -- let's get some stuff done."
The kind of stuff, however, will be different than what Obama emphasized when he roared into office a year ago Wednesday. White House strategists will be looking for modest victories that can be pulled off at a time when endangered Democrats will be even more gun-shy of tough votes than they were last year.
Aides say that in his State of the Union address on Jan. 27 and in his budget on Feb. 1, Obama will unflinchingly roll out real fiscal austerity measures that they say will draw flak from both sides of the aisle.
Already Obama's rhetoric is reflecting what aides acknowledge is a strong undercurrent of populist anger. By these lights, impatience with the status quo -- rather than any rightward turn in the mood of the electorate -- is what would fuel a Brown victory.
Reflecting his new tone, Obama last week announced a new fee on big banks by vowing, "We want our money back, and we're going to get it.". At a House Democratic retreat a few hours later, he said leaders need to be "fighting for the American people with the same sense of urgency that they feel in their own lives."
In his weekly address on Saturday, he declared: "We're not going to let Wall Street take the money and run." Saluting Martin Luther King Jr. in remarks to a Baptist congregation the next day, Obama railed against "an era of greed and irresponsibility that sowed the seeds of its own demise."
At the rally for Coakley, he added: "Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty."
White House senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters that Democrats will not allow the midterm elections to become "a referendum on this administration" but, instead, will force Republicans to defend the role they have played in the economic crisis.
And press secretary Robert Gibbs said a key theme of 2010 will be asking voters "whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they're on the people's side."
Democrats looking for shards of hope in a grim week say they take some consolation in having their political straits exposed early in the midterm election year, in contrast to their much later wake-up call before the Republican revolution of 1994.
And one Democrat pointed out: "It's not as if having 60 votes in the Senate has made life a walk in the park."
The narrower majority will force more White House engagement with Republicans, which could actually help restore a bit of the post-partisan image that was a fundamental ingredient of his appeal to voters.
"Now everything that gets done in the Senate will have the imprimatur of bipartisanship," another administration official said. "The benefits of that will accrue to the president and the Democratic Senate. It adds to the pressure on Republicans to participate in the process in a meaningful way, which so far they have refused to do."
More defensively, Obama advisers plan to argue that Coakley's lackluster campaign contributed at least as much to the loss as the national environment.
"You can say it's a rejection of the agenda," a top Democrat said. "But it's just as valid to say it's frustration with the way things are going in the country and that people still want change."