WASHINGTON -- Americans go to the polls on November 2 in an election that most observers predict will result in a major shake-up in the balance of power in Congress.
Every seat in the 435-member House of Representatives, and 37 seats in the 100-member Senate, is up for grabs. Many Americans will also elect state governors.
Since the 2008 election, Democrats have controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. In the Senate, they hold a commanding 57-seat majority to the Republicans' 41, with two independent senators who vote with the Democrats. In the House, they hold 257 seats to the Republicans' 178.
The latest polls predict that the Republicans will win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, which will give them power over which legislation makes it to the floor for a vote. In the Senate, Democrats are expected to hold on to a narrow majority.
It's a huge change from 2008, when President Barack Obama and members of his Democratic Party were swept into power on a platform of "hope and change" by an electorate that wanted to move away from the policies and politics of George W. Bush and his Republican Party.
Less than two years later, most of that optimism and excitement is gone, replaced by anxiety over the economic recession and doubt over which direction the country is headed.Anger And The Economy
A demonstrator wears a T-shirt with the communist hammer and sickle during a Tea Party march in Washington last month.
So what changed? Bruce Cain, an elections expert and professor at the University of California Berkeley, says the Democrats were given almost too much power in the last election and as a result, public expectations soared too high.
That, combined with the stalled economic recovery, has left people feeling like Obama and the Democrats didn't deliver all that they had promised.
"The economy proved to be a much more difficult problem than the Obama people thought. They thought they could bring down the unemployment [rate] with the stimulus and various other measures and in reality, as a lot of countries around the world have discovered, this is a much more difficult economic problem, and unemployment remains high," Cain says.
"There's feeling on the left that the stimulus package wasn't big enough, and there's a lot of feeling on the right -- and in many quarters in the center -- that the stimulus package wasn't directed properly."
For many Americans, the continued high rate of unemployment -- currently hovering around 10 percent -- is the main reason for their unhappiness with the status quo. Some sectors of the economy have begun to show clear signs of recovery, but new jobs haven't followed because companies have learned to become more efficient with fewer workers.
A new "New York Times"/CBS News poll confirms that many Americans who voted for Obama have switched their loyalty to the Republicans this year. The opinion survey results reveal "a nation so politically disquieted and disappointed" with how things are going that 57 percent of registered voters said they are willing to vote for a candidate with little political experience. More than 25 percent said they would vote for a candidate with views that "seem extreme."Rise Of The Tea Party
Many of those so-called "extreme" candidates belong to a new political movement that has emerged in the United States since the last election. Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, the Tea Party isn't yet an established political organization with an official fundraising wing or a national headquarters.
The movement takes its name from the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when American colonists boarded ships and threw their cargo of tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes imposed by Britain. The move was a watershed moment on the road to the American Revolution.
The Tea Party's loose structure and platform have worked to its advantage by attracting wide support among Americans who have a generalized anger about what they see as a government that has grown too big. The new health-care-reform bill -- which extends health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans and is the biggest piece of domestic social-policy legislation in decades -- is the Tea Party's favorite example of government overspending.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a leading Obama critic.
Broadly speaking, Tea Party members believe in smaller government and tend to be socially conservative. Many are former members of the Republican Party. But most Tea Partiers, as they're known, are fed up with all politicians -- not just members of the Democratic Party. In general, they see Obama as the root of the problem.
Their rallies tend to be boisterous events and the biggest gatherings attract well-known conservative political figures like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
In at least a handful of important primaries earlier this fall, a Tea Party candidate beat the Republican candidate to secure a spot on next week's ballot. One of the most surprising wins was in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell, a 41-year-old with no political experience, beat an 18-year veteran of Congress.
After O'Donnell's surprise win, the national media quickly dug up embarrassing details from her past, including an appearance on a talk show from several years ago in which she admitted to dabbling in witchcraft. The ensuing ridicule led her to produce a bizarre campaign ad where she declared, "I'm not a witch."Obama Defends His Record
The White House has not sat by quietly as predictions of Democratic defeat at the November polls have grown louder. Obama has crisscrossed the country for weeks to campaign on behalf of Democratic candidates.
On October 27, Obama even showed up on "The Daily Show," a popular nightly 30-minute talk show hosted by comedian Jon Stewart.
Stewart is known for poking fun at politicians and pointing out their flaws and he didn't go easy on Obama. He asked the U.S. president what many voters are asking -- has Obama failed to deliver on his campaign promises?
"Certainly, in terms of the folks who voted for me, my expectation and hope is that if you look at the track record that we accomplished in very difficult circumstances over the last 18 months, we have done an awful lot that we talked about in the campaign, and we're going to do more in the years to come," Obama replied.
Obama said the changes he promised were "not going to happen overnight" and that Americans were "going to have to work for it." And he offered a robust defense of his own record and that of the Congressional Democrats.
"Over and over again, we have moved forward an agenda that is making a difference in people's lives each and every day," Obama said. "Now, is it enough? No, and I expect and I think most Democrats out there expect that people want to see more progress."
Elections expert Cain says the results of the November 2 poll will be viewed as a report card on Obama's first two years in office, but will also reflect the pain of national problems beyond Obama's control -- like the economic recession.
And he says even though the Democratic Party will likely suffer big losses, that shouldn't be seen as a sign that Obama is on his way out in the 2012 presidential election. He notes that in their first term in office, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan's parties took a beating in the midterm elections, but each leader recovered enough in the following two years to win reelection.
In other words, even if the Republicans win big on November 2, it's too soon to count Barack Obama out.