In any case, the widespread and growing approval of Obama's performance as president-elect did not motivate a high Democratic turnout. It may even have dampened it. Obama's choices for high positions -- keeping Robert Gates as secretary of defense, installing Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, appointing New York Fed Chairman Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury -- have won widespread approval from the public and drawn cheers from many conservative Republican pundits. But for voters motivated by root and branch hatred of George W. Bush and all his works -- from the Democratic base, in other words -- they may not have been the change they believed they were voting for in November. If Obama continues to govern in this vein, he may Eisenhower-like drive his own approval ratings up but generate little enthusiasm for his party.
This could be the case especially among affluent voters. In November, Obama assembled a top-and-bottom majority coalition, winning among voters with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000, and running (narrowly) behind among those in between. But in the Georgia runoff, voters in the ring of affluent suburban counties around Atlanta voted between 64 percent and 85 percent Republican.
To be sure, this is more Republican turf than the rings of similarly affluent counties in the big metropolitan areas of the North. But it does raise the question of whether Democrats can sustain Obama levels of support in affluent America if voters there do not see the recent dizzying drops in their home values and investment portfolios reversed over the next few years.
There's a danger of extrapolating too much from a single election held in unusual circumstances that are not likely to be precisely replicated elsewhere. But one lesson of political year 2008 is that voters' preferences are subject to sharp shifts in a period of what I have been calling open-field politics. An Associated Press-Yahoo series of 10 polls over 12 months showed that 14 percent of voters switched candidates, and John McCain had a clear lead in most polls when the financial crisis hit in mid-September.
The world isn't likely to stand still in the months and years ahead, and the Georgia runoff result is one more piece of evidence that many political outcomes are possible.