A pensive and introspective President Obama said Wednesday the election was a “shellacking” and took responsibility for his party’s disastrous showing, saying that in the rush to get things done, they forgot to make good on their promise to change the way Washington works.
But Mr. Obama wouldn’t concede that the electoral blowout was a direct repudiation of his policies.
Instead, he blamed a slow economic recovery and the perception that some of the “emergency” measures taken to right the economy, such as the stimulus bill, may have been interpreted by voters as a permanent expansion of government, as opposed to a one-off response to the financial crisis.
“We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done. And I think that frustrated people,” the president said in a startlingly frank news conference in the White House’s East Room.
A day after Democrats lost at least 60 House seats and a half-dozen Senate seats to Republicans, Mr. Obama said he’ll search for common ground with the newly emboldened GOP on tax cuts, and acknowledged some of his first-term agenda is now beyond reach, including his goal of signing a bill to address climate change.
Republican leaders said they, too, will strive for cooperation, but that the president and Democrats need to understand the rejection voters dealt them on Tuesday.
“Listening to what they’ve had to say this morning, they may have missed the message somewhat,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “I get the impression they’re thinking their view is that we haven’t cooperated enough. I think what the American people were saying yesterday is that they appreciated us saying ‘no’ to the things that the American people indicated they were not in favor of.”
Self-abasement was the sentiment of the day.
Mr. Obama said the election results were “humbling,” and Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican likely to become House speaker in the next Congress, said his party has been “humbled” by voters’ trust.
“This is a time for us to roll up our sleeves and go to work on the people’s priorities — creating jobs, cutting spending and reforming the way Congress does its business,” Mr. Boehner said. “It’s not just what the American people are demanding; it’s what they are expecting from us.”
Congress reconvenes later this month for a lame-duck session, and among the earliest tests of cooperation will be the expiring tax cuts. Mr. Obama signaled a willingness to compromise with Republicans, who along with many Democrats have insisted that the entire slate of tax cuts be extended past the end of this year.
But Mr. Obama did not say how the parties will overcome the impasse over extending the benefits for wealthier earners - something he and his allies have staunchly opposed.
Mr. Obama said he could have done a better job managing the administration’s relationship with business, and in a signal that he left Democratic leaders in Congress too free rein, he said he regrets having signed spending bills loaded with pork-barrel projects.
“In the rush to get things done, I had to sign a bunch of bills that had earmarks in them, which was contrary to what I talked about,” he said.
That signals a possible fight over the next several months with Congress, where Senate Republicans and Democrats in both chambers have vigorously defended their right to send money back to their home districts.
House Republican leaders, though, said they stand ready to work with him.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, said he and Mr. Obama spoke about the House GOP’s one-year earmark moratorium.
“If the president would like to partner in this effort, I gladly take him up on that offer,” Mr. Cantor said.
For their part, Democratic leaders said the message they heard from voters is to work together. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, quickly returned to pre-election rhetoric, saying it is up to the GOP to move away from being the “party of no.”
Mr. Reid is likely to remain Senate Democrats’ leader after winning support Wednesday from his two potential rivals. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat whose caucus has now shed all of the gains it made under her guidance in 2006 and 2008, told ABC News she is not sure whether she will try to remain as its leader.
Mr. Obama acknowledged at least temporary defeat on one of his original legislative priorities, saying it’s now politically impossible to impose a price on carbon emissions and set up a “cap-and-trade” scheme.
He said the new balance of power doesn’t mean the two parties should wait before moving forward on a smaller energy bill they can both support, however, and listed developing renewable- and clean-energy sources as points of cooperation.
The president said he also expects to find Republicans willing to work together on education, infrastructure and small business, and again urged Congress to pass his the second stimulus infrastructure spending package he proposed in September.
Comparing himself to popular predecessors Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — both of whom saw midterm losses amid sagging approval ratings, yet went on to win re-election — Mr. Obama said it’s “hard not to seem removed” when he’s in the White House. That’s why, he said, he likes to travel outside the Beltway and meet with the public. But he said he’s become trapped by Washington.
The president said grappling with the aftermath of voters’ rejection “is something I think every president needs to go through.” Still, he did not retreat from any parts of his first-term agenda, and even defended the health care law, though it required the kind of deal-making he said he had hoped to change in Washington.
Mr. Obama said the deals Democrats used to push the bill through represent “something I regret,” and said he wished the process had been “healthier.” But he argued it was worth it because the law was overwhelmingly beneficial to seniors, families and other groups.
At the same time, he said, he would be “happy to consider” Republican proposals to tweak and improve the law, such as eliminating an unpopular provisions that small businesses say pose an undue paperwork burden.
• Kara Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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