Editor's note: Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies, a strategic messaging firm. His is the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Nation."
Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The midterm election was clearly a repudiation. The question is, a repudiation of what?
Fifty years of data from one election after another has shown that people vote with their gut, and this year the gut of the American voter -- left, right, and center -- was angry and anxious. It's not hard to understand why: One in 10 Americans of working age is out of a job and six in 10 are living from paycheck to paycheck.
In times like these, most people can tell you what they are feeling, but when asked what would make them feel better, they can only guess. So in exit polls, some said we need to cut deficits and that would make them feel better. Others said they'd like to see the government do something, anything, to create jobs, something an anemic private sector has proven unable to do -- and has not done since the passage nearly a decade ago of the Bush tax cuts, which stimulated nothing but inequality.
But voters said something else in this election. Nearly 40 percent, an astoundingly high percentage for a midterm election, reported that they cast their ballot in protest of the president. They did it in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where not only has unemployment skyrocketed, but also where President Obama has been stumping over the last few weeks. They even did it in Illinois, where they voted by proxy against their favorite son, replacing the Democrat who temporarily filled his Senate seat with a permanent Republican.
So how did the same man who ran the tables like a skilled gambler in 2008 manage to help turn them so dramatically in the wrong direction two years later?
The story many have told is that he "over-reached," that he lurched too far to the left. And if the president believes that story, it will no doubt shape the direction he turns for the rest of his presidency.
But as often as that story might be told around the political campfire, the White House would do well to toast its marshmallows elsewhere.
If a right turn is the answer now, it certainly wasn't in the president's first few weeks in office, when the economy was in tatters, the Dow was in a continuous free-fall, and businesses were casting off workers at the rate of three-quarters of a million a month.
Nobel-Prize-winning economists were prescribing a trillion-dollar stimulus focused on direct job creation, the kind of stimulus that created our interstate highways during the last economic crisis of this magnitude, the Great Depression, highways that are in disrepair along with the rest of our infrastructure now. Instead, the president chose to focus on process -- searching for an illusory bipartisanship by replacing job-creating provisions of his stimulus bill with tax cuts favored by Republicans that had failed for the past eight years to stem the private-sector job losses of the Bush administration.
The result was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. The effect was that the average voter couldn't see that anything had changed -- except the deficit had widened. There were still no jobs. At the same time, the administration felt unappreciated that it had saved us from a second Great Depression and wasn't receiving credit for it.
Both were true. But the White House should have stuck to its guns rather than trading away many of the job-creating provisions of its original stimulus proposal for illusory good will from Republicans in Congress. Had the president simply told the American people at that time and over and over again for the next two years that because of the failed economic policies of the Bush administration, the heart of our economy had stopped and that it would likely take multiple jolts of electricity to get it going again, he could have called for, and gotten, a second stimulus targeted directly at job creation when the first one proved incapable of putting Americans back to work.
How can I be certain that Americans would have supported the kind of jobs package passed by the House that languished in the Senate? Because I tested multiple ways of talking about it with the American people a year ago, and virtually every message tested beat a strong fiscal restraint message by more than 30 points with virtually every demographic group and across the political spectrum.
Unemployment has no party affiliation. Americans understood that we have no shortage of work ethic in this country, instead we have a shortage of work, and we have plenty of roads and bridges to repair, broadband cables and rail tracks to lay, and wind turbines to build.
The president and his advisers misinterpreted both the meaning of his election and polls showing that Americans wanted "bipartisanship." The reality is that people who are out of work couldn't care less about who is bickering with whom in Washington. They care about what is happening to their lives and families.
Americans would be perfectly happy to endure squabbling on television if they had a job and the economy were flourishing. If they cared so much about bipartisanship, they would have rewarded centrist Republicans this year, not Tea Partiers and their comrades on the far right who have already stated openly that they have no use for compromise.
What Americans mean when they talk about bipartisanship is that they want members of Congress to solve their problems, and they don't care if the solutions come from the right or the left.
Short of that, they want what the most successful presidents have offered them -- a clear vision of a way forward that gives them hope, and a sense that he feels what they feel. And that is precisely what the president who ran on hope and change failed to offer.
For the first 18 months of his presidency, until it was clear that Democrats were headed for a massive electoral defeat, the president never explained to the American people how we got into this mess or how we might get out of it. He wanted to look forward, not backward. And while Americans felt comforted by candidate Obama's cool when they were feeling most anxious, they did not feel equally comforted by his seeming inability to get angry at the people who cost them their jobs, homes, or economic security.
The reality is that the swing voters who have swung so dramatically in their feelings toward the president over the past two years don't care much about right and left. That's why they're swing voters. They just want their problems solved. And although a divided Congress might well fit the president's temperamental predilection toward bipartisanship, it is likely to make it all the harder for him to give them what they want the most.
It is time for the president who prefers to look forward to look in the rearview mirror. If he wants to regain the faith of the American people, he will need to look carefully at the advice he has received and taken during the past two years, and to rearrange more than the deck chairs to ensure that the advice he receives in the next two years is more in his, his party's, and his nation's interest.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Drew Westen.