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In Congress, a party sweep for Democrats

But they fall short of the 60 Senate seats needed to overcome filibusters and end gridlock.

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“Obama is becoming president just in the nick of time, because working people are facing the worst economic crisis in our lifetime, and the country needs a tremendous effort by the federal government to turn the economy around,” says Bruce Raynor, general president of Unite Here and leader of Change to Win, a coalition representing some 6 million union members that supported Obama since early in the Democratic primary.

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"He has a lot to thank working people for,” he adds. “Congress has a very able group of leaders, and you’re going to see some significant steps forward.”

A top priority of labor, adds Mr. Raynor, is to quickly move a stimulus plan that is large enough to make a difference in the lives of working Americans.

"To limit the stimulus to $150 billion, as some Democrats have proposed, is ludicrous," he says. "It’s a deep crisis. Were going to have to bail out the auto industry. And we have to find a way to provide healthcare for huge portions of the population that don’t have it now.”

Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, which claims to have turned out some 6.5 million women to support Democratic abortion-rights candidates, also sees a pent-up demand for more government action.

"There will be big significant changes that he’s going to do to help the economy and some other issues he can do very quickly to signal that it’s a different Washington now," she says. "I hope that the excitement of the Obama presidency will bring in the best and the brightest to repair government itself. We saw it with [hurricane] Katrina: The government is broken."

For Democrats, the lessons of the first two years of the Clinton presidency are especially relevant as an object lesson in how not to manage a new administration. From an early focus on gays in the military and tough negotiations with Congress over a budget to a massive (and ultimately failed) healthcare-reform plan, the Clinton administration overreached in its first two years, opening the door to a Republican takeover of the House in 1995, Democrats say.

“Obviously, the first priority for a new president is to set priorities and determine what’s the most important things to try to get done,” says Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff. “If you pick the wrong issue or a divisive issue or one that you lose on, it will undermine your ability to deal with other issues.”

But Obama could have an advantage heading into his first term, adds Mr. Panetta. Despite public frustrations and expectations, “the one thing he has is a bond with those voters. They trust him, and he has to be willing to tell them the truth.”

With Tuesday’s vote, Democrats deepened gains in the West and breached GOP bastions in the Old South, while all but closing Republicans out of New England.