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.
That confused message is likely to lead to further bickering between the parties as they press for advantage in the new congressional session. In that atmosphere the president must make a choice, Sabato said, about how far to compromise.
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.
“The most exercise in Washington will be finger-pointing for the next two years, which means nothing is going to get done,” Sabato said.
The exit poll numbers that underscore the disaffection from Washington also give Republicans more incentive to put a brake on White House initiatives. The all-but-certain next House Speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a crowd of cheering supporters late Tuesday night that “we're witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the American people.”
So the overarching question in the hours after the election is whether consensus or gridlock lies ahead between the newly empowered Republicans and the White House. For example, while the president agreed that certain provisions of the sweeping health care legislation might be reexamined, he also made clear that he would resist GOP efforts to try to make wholesale changes to the measure. “We'd be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years,” he declared.
While the president agreed that the public clearly favors bringing down the deficit, he suggested that battles may lie ahead on how to accomplish that goal. Obama expressed hope that his bipartisan debt commission may come up with some proposals to address the red ink in their recommendations next month, but he acknowledged the two sides may have different approaches.
“The question that I think my Republican friends and me and Democratic leaders will have to answer is, what are our priorities? What do we care about? And that’s going to be a tough debate because there some tough choices here.”
Similarly he made clear that he is receptive to an extension of tax cuts for the middle class, but left open the thornier issue of tax cuts for the “wealthy” — those making more than $250,000. “My goal is to make sure that we don’t have a huge spike in taxes for middle class families. Not only would that be a terrible burden on families who are already going through tough times, it would be bad for our economy.”
Obama, who called Boehner and McConnell, on election night, said that his goal is to sit down with them and Democratic congressional leaders “in the next few weeks” to work on tax policy “that first of all does no harm.” Even if the President begins to reach out to Republican leaders, many questions remain about the ultimate path he will choose to govern in the new Washington order. Sabato put it succinctly:
Will he be Bill Clinton and compromise with Congress or Harry Truman and tell them to go to hell?”
After ‘Shellacking,’ Obama Laments Disconnect with Voters (MSNBC)
What’s Next for Obama and Congress? (CBS News)
Midterms: Election Reveals Long-Term Problems for the Economy (BNET)