Every midterm election is a referendum on the performance of the president, and voters on Tuesday delivered a clear verdict. They rejected President Obama’s policies. Exit polls show an electorate deeply skeptical of Obama’s economic agenda, and more broadly, very unhappy about the way the federal government is working.
That tough assessment of White House policies was reflected in the poll numbers, in which more than half — 52 percent, according to CBS News — said they think that “in the long run” the president’s policies will hurt the country, while only 44 percent said they would help. Voters were even tougher when asked to grade Obama’s handling of his job, as some 54 percent disapproved while only 45 percent gave him a high-five.
More than a quarter — 26 percent — of the respondents said they were “angry” when asked to describe their feelings about the way the federal government is working, and another 48 percent described themselves as “dissatisfied but not angry.” Only 3 percent were enthusiastic and just 21 percent more were “satisfied but not enthusiastic.”
Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, called the results “a thumbs down, a vigorous thumbs down,” on Obama’s policies. The mandate of this election, Sabato added, is to “fix the damn economy.” Obama, he said, “needs to show real humility — he must admit error with real sincerity.”
The reverberations from the “shellacking” that Obama conceded he took on Election Day could be felt throughout Washington on Wednesday. Republicans repeatedly said that Obama had lost touch with voters and nothing he said at his press conference is likely to change their take.
“This is a referendum on the people who don’t listen,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The message from the voters, he added, is, “Pay the hell attention.” The mandate going forward is to reduce spending, reduce the debt and increase jobs. But those goals, while hard for anybody to disagree with, will invite spirited debate in the coming months.
R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chuckled when he was asked in an interview about the public’s professed desire to see Washington roll back government spending. “There are no concrete signs that voters are willing or able to support the tough steps to tackle the budget deficits,” he said. Indeed, he pointed to a series of polls in recent months in which the public was all over the map over how to reduce the size of government.
At a press conference on Wednesday, a subdued Obama was asked whether he saw the midterm elections as a repudiation of his policies. The president, while not quite contrite, still acknowledged that people were “expressing great frustration” that there had not been enough progress on jumpstarting the economy. He noted there has been private-sector job growth, but conceded that “people all across America aren’t facing that progress. They don’t see it.” As a result, he said, “I have to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.”
Sounding conciliatory, Obama expressed confidence that both parties can “sit down together” and come up with “a set of ideas” that will promote economic growth. He specifically pointed to energy policy as an area where Republicans and Democrats might come together and agree, even as he conceded the so-called cap and trade legislation that he favored to curb greenhouse emissions is not going forward, given GOP opposition to it.
Still, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about just how much can be achieved in an atmosphere in which newly empowered Republicans view the election results as a repudiation of White House policies, Tea Party stalwarts are not looking for compromises, and the administration must be more attentive to its liberal base of activists, who largely did not show up at the polls on Tuesday.