President Barack Obama took responsibility for what he termed a “shellacking” of Democrats in Tuesday’s elections and said he was willing to meet with Republicans to find common ground. But he did not indicate he is willing to significantly roll back the signatures issues of his presidency, including health care reform. Appearing humbled and somewhat chastened by losing 64 seats in the house, along with strong showings in the Senate and gubernatorial races, Obama said the result proved to be a hard lesson for him – one that his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush endured as well.
Obama did signal potential compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts and looking for new ways to reform energy policy. Republicans want to extend all of the tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans. Obama has opposed the latter cut, but did not mention that in his press conference Wednesday. He also said he and the Republicans will have to find “other means” of addressing energy policy aside from his stalled “cap and trade” legislation which Republicans call job killing legislation.
“Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat,” he said, referring to efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses.
Obama started his press conference by saying he understands the frustration of the American people who put him in office to change things and have not seen that change come fast enough, leaving the impression that he is out of touch. He blamed part of that problem on the cocoon-like atmosphere that surrounds all presidents – and inability to get out of the White House to take the temperature of the country. And he pledged to listen more.
we connected with people that got us here in the first place”
“There is a danger in being in office and being in the bubble,” Obama said toward the end of his hour-long press conference. He said he was trying to balance his weighty duties as president with staying in touch by reading letters from Americans every night, but “there are more things I can do to make sure I’m getting outta here,” he said, gesturing to the trappings of the ornate East Room. And he noted that a “couple of great communicators,” Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, had difficulty escaping the treadmill of the office.
“In the rush of activity, sometimes we lose track of the ways we connected with people that got us here in the first place,” he said. “I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night,” he added ruefully. “I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.”
Republicans took 64 House seats from Democrats, and at least 6 seats in the Senate, with some races still to be decided, putting Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in line to be speaker when the new Congress convenes in January and strengthening the hand of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Both Boehner and McConnell called on the president to move toward their party in the coming months, with McConnell issuing a threat that if not, Republicans would work to claim more political prizes in two years – including Obama’s.
“Clearly the election did not transfer full control of the government to the opposition,” McConnell said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “It was a first step in the direction of changing what we do in Washington. There are two options for that change to occur. Our friends on the other side can change now and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people, or further change could happen in 2012.”
Health Care at the Core of Debate
Boehner was outwardly more conciliatory, calling for talks with the president. But he said the vote for Republicans was an expression of frustration of the American people with a government that has “ruined our health care and bankrupted the economy.” He continued to call for repeal of Obama’s health reform law.
Obama was more inclined to talk about tinkering around the edges of the law and insisted that the American people do not want to give up benefits the new law bestowed on them – an end to insurance rejection of children with pre-existing conditions, help for seniors to pay for prescription drugs, keeping young adults on parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and an effort to rein in costs. He maintained that people do not want to “relitigate” issues that he sees as settled. He did allow that new tax filing requirements for small businesses under the law – the so-called 1099 provision – is burdensome and ripe for change. Asked about polls showing that half the American people want the law repealed, Obama countered that means “one in two think it was the right thing to do.”
He argued that because stimulating the economy, saving the banks, and propping up automobile industry are all difficult political tasks to negotiate, he may have let his pledge to change the way Washington works slide in the pressure to get things done.
He said the hardest thing about losing so many Democratic seats is having to call the losers, particularly those like Rep. Tom Perriello, in Virginia, for whom Obama stumped just last week, who staunchly backed his policies, knowing the political peril it would put them in because they represented Republican or swing districts.
“It feels bad,” Obama said.
Obama appeared to be looking for a way to balance his remaining power with the newly emboldened members of the other party, just as other presidents who found themselves in similar situations have tried to do.
What Did Clinton Do?
Clinton tried to shame the Republicans into compromising, saying in 1994 when Republicans claimed both the House and the Senate, that now, they, too had a responsibility for “acting in the best interest of the American people. I reach out to them today, and I ask them to join me in the center of the public debate where the best ideas for the next generation of American progress must come,” Clinton said. But he warned, as Obama did, that they shouldn’t try a U-turn on the economic recovery. “I will do all in my power to keep anyone from jeopardizing the economic recovery by taking us back to the policies that failed before,” Clinton said.
Months after the 1994 election, Clinton and Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, came to an impasse over the budget and the government shut down.
Bush had his Comeuppance, Too
After the 2006 election, Bush, also sounding like Obama, said he was “open to any idea or suggestion” that would help the U.S. achieve success in the war in Iraq. Democrats continued to vote against the war. For his part, Obama appealed to Republicans’ patriotism in calling for compromise. “The most important competition we face is between America and our economic competitors around the world. We’re going to need to be strong and we’re going to need to be united. No person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom. I’m eager to hear good ideas wherever they come from,” he said.
But Obama added a caveat, just as his predecessors did. “What the American people don’t want from us is to spend the next two years refighting the battles of the last two,” he said.
The Fiscal Times’ Jennifer DePaul contributed to this story.