WASHINGTON -- What we learned from the off-year elections: The president's influence is limited, independents rule, issues trump ideology and, once more, "It's the economy, stupid."

Also: Republicans can win -- even if they lack a leader and their base is cracked. And this certainly isn't the Democratic-friendly political environment of 2006 and 2008, when the party captured control of Congress and the White House.

The first Election Day of Barack Obama's presidency was a big night for Republicans, who recaptured governorships in the swing state of Virginia and the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey.

So, what did we learn about politics, people and their priorities from the handful of races on Tuesday? And how will those lessons shape the maneuvering of Republicans and Democrats ahead of 2010 midterms, when Obama's prestige will be put to the test across the country?

The results don't seem to bode well for Obama and his party heading into a high-stakes year as they look to advance an expensive domestic agenda while protecting the Democrats' grip on House, Senate and gubernatorial seats nationwide.

Among the lessons learned:

Obama's power is limited

"Yes, we can!" has turned into "Yes, we can -- if we feel like it!"

The broad coalition -- minorities, young people, first-time voters, Republican crossovers and independents -- that fueled Obama's victory was a 2008 phenomenon and can't be counted on if the man himself is not on the ballot. Even though Obama personally implored his supporters to turn out in droves, voters rejected Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia.

That could be a problem for Democratic lawmakers in swing states and conservative-to-moderate districts next fall. Candidates carried into office in the Obama wave will be vulnerable in 2010 -- with no lifeguard to help. And that could influence how those lawmakers vote in Congress in the meantime -- perhaps threatening the president's priorities.

Independents are kingmakers

Voters who don't claim a political party again proved their value by propelling Republicans to victory in Virginia and New Jersey one year after carrying Obama to the White House.

Last year, hope and change tilted them toward Democrats. This year, anger and frustration tilted them to Republicans. They broke 2-1 for GOP victors Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia.

Issues, from jobs to taxes to government spending, drive this center of the electorate, so candidates who talk about what independents care most about will win the middle and, thus, elections.

Issues trump ideology

Voters have spoken: Issues like God, guns and gays take a back seat in a recession.

In Virginia, McDonnell proved that a socially conservative Republican can win in a Democratic-trending state if the focus is on pocketbook issues. In New Jersey, Christie -- a moderate Republican -- found success by sticking to core local issues, taxes and jobs. Both winners de-emphasized social issues in favor of solutions for problems people were facing in their own backyards -- jobs, transportation and taxes among them.

In polling-place surveys, a jaw-dropping 85 percent in Virginia and 89 percent in New Jersey said they were worried about the economy -- even though there are signs of recovery.

2006 and 2008 are gone

The warm and fuzzy feelings voters had for Democrats in back-to-back national elections are history.

George W. Bush as a political punching bag doesn't work anymore.

And now, after riding a wave of change to power, Democrats are the incumbents facing an electorate rich with anti-incumbent sentiment.

Of course, individual candidates matter, too, and in New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats ran candidates whom voters just didn't seem to like much.

Victories in both states have given Republicans a much-needed morale boost.

But the defeat in New York's 23rd Congressional District, after a nasty race in which the GOP-picked candidate dropped out under pressure from conservatives, served as yet another warning sign: The Republicans aren't out of the woods either.