President Obama appeared humbled, reflective and conciliatory about the “shellacking” his party received Tuesday during a post-mortem news conference at the White House.
The president largely dismissed the notion that Americans were rejecting his policies by giving the GOP an overwhelming midterm win and instead blamed high unemployment and a slow economic recovery for his party’s losses.
Still, Obama on Wednesday said the loss of more than 60 House seats “underscores for me that I’ve got to do a better job, just like everybody else in Washington.”
“We were in such a hurry to get things done that we forgot to change how things get done in Washington,” added Obama, who chose his words carefully.
Republican leaders, celebrating a landslide, said they too want to compromise, even as they hinted at the bloody legislative battles to come by vowing to cut federal spending and repeal Obama’s healthcare law.
“We’re determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who saw his conference gain six seats. “We’ll work with the administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don’t.”
Each side appeared to be sizing the other up in the aftermath of a wave election greater than in 1994, when Republicans last won the House. Republicans suggested they had seized the mantle of change that carried Obama to victory two years ago and urged the president to move toward their governing philosophies.
Attentions will turn quickly to the lame-duck session of Congress and the likelihood of gridlock in Washington. Both Republicans and Democrats also are already thinking about the presidential contest.
“Ultimately, I’ll be judged as president by the bottom line – results,” Obama told reporters gathered in the East Room.
In his remarks, the president largely avoided topics that could result in showdowns with the new Republican majority, pointing instead to areas where he thinks he and the GOP can work together.
The president said he is “absolutely” open to negotiations over extending the George W. Bush tax cuts, despite spending the last several months digging in over his determination to end cuts for families with incomes above $250,000.
Obama said he would sit down with Republicans and Democrats in the next few weeks to look for a way forward that “first of all, does no harm.” He said that would include extending tax cuts important for middle-class families as well as tax breaks that would provide certainty to businesses and encourage them to invest.
House GOP Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), who is expected to be the next majority leader of the chamber, said he was “heartened” that the president said he was open to the idea of a moratorium on earmarks.
On his signature domestic agenda item of healthcare, Obama was not combative but warned Republicans would be “misreading” Tuesday’s results if they spend the next two years “re-litigating” the battles of the past two.
The primary response at the White House on Wednesday was that Republicans would be making a mistake to read Tuesday night’s results as a green light to be more combative.
Noting his own reelection, Obama said that “with so much at stake, what the American people don’t want from us, especially here in Washington, is to spend the next two years re-fighting the political battles of the last two.
“We just had a tough election. We will have another in 2012,” Obama said. “I’m not so naïve as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then, but I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that’s going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.”
Obama’s remarks signaled that he has high hopes he will bounce back from his party’s disastrous losses, just like former President Clinton, who survived the 1994 GOP wave.
“I think it’s important to point out as well that a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions because the economy wasn’t working the way it needed to be and there were a whole range of factors that made people concerned that maybe the party in power wasn’t listening to them,” Obama said.
Doubling down on that sentiment, the president suggested that if the economy was recovering at a faster pace, voters would not have been as critical of some of his policies.
“If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices,” Obama said. “The fact is, is that for most folks, proof of whether they work or not is, ‘Has the economy gotten back to where it needs to be?’ And it hasn’t.”
The president also struck a personal note, saying “it’s hard” to see Democratic lawmakers who voted for his agenda lose.
“There is a not only sadness about seeing them go, but there’s also a lot of questioning on my part in terms of could I have done something differently or done something more so that those folks would still be here,” Obama said.