WASHINGTON – Republicans cast themselves as the anti-Obama and scored a blowout at the polls. Now their real work — repairing the party's still-tattered image and earning voters' trust — begins.
It's a mammoth job, made more difficult by the very things that propelled the GOP to the House majority and bolstered numbers in the Senate: tea party-fueled public anger about the economy, frustration at the slow pace of change and widespread distaste for government.
Republicans know their party's reputation, and that their chances of taking the White House and keeping their power in Congress in 2012 hinge on how well they improve it.
A large and potentially rebellious crop of freshman lawmakers, some backed by conservative-libertarian tea party groups, will add an unpredictable and difficult-to-control element to whatever House Republicans set out to do. The realities of divided government, including President Barack Obama's veto power and the Democratic-controlled Senate, will limit what the party can achieve.
GOP leaders are working to calibrate the public's expectations. They're reminding people early and often that they didn't win the power to turn things around quickly and that they don't read the electorate's message as a sweeping mandate.
"The voters didn't suddenly fall in love with Republicans; they fell out of love with Democrats," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader whose power increases with at least six more GOP senators on his side.
McConnell said the party's prime mission should be to deny Obama a second term — the only way, he said, the GOP can really accomplish its goals of undoing the health care law, cutting spending and shrinking government.
"It would be foolish to expect that Republicans will be able to completely reverse the damage Democrats have done as long as a Democrat holds the veto pen," McConnell said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation. "We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve, while at the same recognizing that realism should never be confused with capitulation."
In the meantime, Republicans are promising efforts to dismantle the health care law piece by piece and cut taxes and spending. They also vow vigorous oversight to stop Obama from skirting Congress and enacting policy changes without their consent.
In the House, GOP leaders also pledged to make Congress more efficient and open and run the chamber in a way that makes it easier to slash federal expenditures.
Presumed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told colleagues in a letter that he'd "run a much different kind of Congress — one that is humbler, more transparent and respects the will and intelligence of the people."
In a letter to GOP incumbents and a newly elected class that includes many political novices, Boehner recounted his own "humble beginnings" working at his dad's bar and as a janitor working his way through college. "The people's priorities," he wrote, "must be our priorities."
Boehner and his top deputies have publicly acknowledged that their party lost its way the last time they had power, and that they have an uphill battle to prove to the public that they've changed.
"Let us be under no illusion: Many of those who cast their vote for Republicans (Nov. 2) have their share of doubts about whether we are up to the task of governing, about whether congressional Republicans have learned our lesson," Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., told colleagues in a letter asking them to name him their new majority leader.
The GOP started the job in the bowels of the Capitol, just after 10 o'clock on the morning after its decisive House takeover. Leaders opened a transition office that will consider rule-changes and smooth the turnover of power from departing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Boehner.
"All of us are coming back here understanding voters want this place to change in a meaningful way," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who's leading the transition.
New members who won tough campaigns vowing to change Washington will have seats at the table.
"They've been getting (input) from the American people, and if you're going to restore the trust in this institution of the American people, you'd better make sure their voice is heard," Walden said.
Key to the GOP's rebranding effort will be a theme leaders have been hitting hard in recent days: Republicans speak for the public, Obama and Democrats do not.
It's a tricky argument to sustain, particularly given that voters sent mixed messages last week about what they want.
Voters were dissatisfied with the way government was working — more than a quarter saying they're angry about it — and overwhelmingly disenchanted with Congress, according to an Associated Press analysis of exit polls.