The political calculus of the Republican Party over the past two years has been simple: frustrate the president's agenda and especially his economic plans. Then blame the White House for the meager recovery, near double-digit unemployment, and exploding federal deficit.
A poorly performing economy and jobless recovery, the GOP leadership believed, would hurt Obama and his party at the polls in 2010 - especially when combined with fear-mongering about the deficit and "intrusive government," appeals to racism, male supremacy and nativism, and unrelenting vilification of the president.
Last night's election results proved them right. Enough people let their frustrations get the best of them, gave in to their worst demons, and bought into the right-wing spin to turn the midterm elections into a major victory for right-wing extremism.
With the unemployment rate stuck at 10 percent and the federal deficit at a record level, the political ground was fertile for a right-wing comeback, especially when you throw in truly unprecedented amounts of money funding Republican candidates and their demagogy.
Had the unemployment rate been 7 percent and falling, and had the economy showed more tangible signs of revival, the outcome would have been very different. Probably the Republicans and the tea party candidates would have registered some gains, but nothing on the scale that they did.
But the ugly economic reality on the ground has left millions in dire straights, confused and angry, and looking in all the wrong places for someone to blame. Yesterday, their wrath was turned on the president and his party - the party in power - whom they held responsible for the economic mess.
The House of Representatives went Republican by a large margin, while the Senate retained a razor-thin Democratic majority. And a number of key governorships went Republican too.
All of which gives right-wing extremism in its Republican and tea party guises a new lease on life. The terrain of struggle has shifted in their favor. Momentum and initiative for the time being is in their hands. Expect congressional Republicans to go on the offensive and press their advantage. They will claim a popular mandate to roll back "big government" and "Obamacare," restore "fiscal integrity" and give free rein to the "animal spirits" of entrepreneurial capitalism.
In practical terms this will translate into a renewed assault on the rights, regulations, protections and entitlements that have been one of the two underpinnings of what we call "The American Dream."
Its other underpinning is a dynamic economy that provides a living wage, a secure job, and retirement security for American workers, but that is also crumbling under the weight of financialization, corporate globalization and, not least, right-wing extremism.
The Republican victory last night will only hasten this "great unraveling."
And what they can't accomplish now, Republican strategists expect will be doable in 2012, when, according to their script, the GOP wins control of every branch of government.
The Democrats, including the president, had a hand in this debacle. In hindsight, it seems like Obama's biggest mistakes were to stabilize the financial system in the way that he did - bailing out Wall Street, to make health care reform his top priority, and to settle on a smaller stimulus package that did not bring down unemployment levels sufficiently to win public support for his efforts.
Nevertheless, whatever the administration's failings (and ours as well), they should not obscure the fact that right-wing extremism is the main obstacle to social and economic progress. The Republican Party has moved far to the right in spirit, policies and makeup compared to the Reagan era. It has a pronounced authoritarian streak.
And its singular aim over the past two years, with its tea party cousins, has been to bring down the Obama administration. Don't think that will change going forward.
Assisting the Republican/tea party movement in these midterm elections were major sections of corporate capital. Obama's tax, health care, environmental and financial reform initiatives didn't sit well with the corporate elite. Nor did they like his stimulus bill or talk of a second stimulus. They want government intervention only when it's a tool to maintain an unfettered capitalist economy and its class structure. Some small reforms are OK by them, but nothing that challenges the wealth and prerogatives of the top layers of our society.
Finance capital and capital in general aren't tethered to either party, but their comfort level with the Republicans is high. During the campaign they lavished GOP candidates with nearly unlimited amounts of money. And last night they were thrilled by the election results.
As for us, there is no need for gloom. Yesterday's defeat was not a knockout. Once the election hangover wears off the president and the coalition of people and organizations that elected him will adjust their agenda and resume their struggles, beginning in the lame duck Congress.
A hot button issue will be whether to end or renew the Bush tax cuts for the rich. This is a fight worth engaging in, although the pressure on some Democrats to support their continuation will be considerable.
One of the silver linings - and there aren't too many - is that now the Republicans can't simply be the Party of NO! They have to move from abstract sloganeering to concrete solutions that the American people can take measure of.
Inevitably this will take away the populist sheen that so far they have been able to hide behind. The conundrum that right-wing extremism is up against now is that its actual policies will reveal its real allegiances - to corporate moneybags - and its political bankruptcy.
Neo-liberal economic orthodoxy wrapped up in a right-wing extremist skin will not put food on the table, aid families losing their homes and young people struggling to pay for college, or assist the millions who desperately need a job at a livable wage.
The Republicans will bask in the glow of their victory for a while, but don't be surprised when many who voted for them become disillusioned with their policies. And on this ground will emerge a people's coalition that is bigger and stronger than the one that elected Obama in 2008.
Nothing is more important at this moment. On the emergence of such a movement rests the success of the Obama presidency now and in 2012; on it rests a way out of this economic crisis that is worker and people friendly; on it rests the kind of country we will be in the 21st century - a country that is decent, inclusive, sustainable, peaceful and just, or a country that stoops to what is worst in our culture and history.
Photo: A voter casts his ballot at the Hayes Township Hall in Ottawa, Kan., Nov. 2. (AP/Charlie Riedel)