Obama calls midterm elections 'humbling,' promises to do better

He acknowledged the 'shellacking' Democrats took in the midterm elections. But at his press conference Wednesday, Obama did not back away from policies that got him in trouble with voters.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House Wednesday.

A subdued President Obama acknowledged in a press conference Wednesday afternoon the “shellacking” his Democratic Party suffered in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and promised to work with the Republicans on a range of issues, foremost the economy.

Mr. Obama called the election results “humbling.” Indeed, there was no way to put a good face on a midterm result in which the Democrats lost at least 60 seats and control of the House, saw their Senate majority reduced, and lost 10 governors’ seats.

"Some election nights are more fun than others,” Obama said in understated fashion, just two years after his own historic election. “Some are exhilarating, some are humbling.”

While the president stated that he has to work harder at building consensus, he did not back away from the very policy choices he made during his first two years in office that got him in trouble, namely the big economic stimulus package, the auto industry bailout, comprehensive health-care reform, and financial regulatory reform.

“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.

He said he won’t rule out any ideas based on which side of the aisle they come from, and that he’s interested only in what works. But the rub comes in determining up front what will “work.” The top issue going forward is the future of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year. Obama said this has to be addressed during next month’s lame-duck session of Congress, but there is still no bipartisan agreement over what to do with tax cuts for top earners. Obama wants to let the tax cuts expire on the top 2 percent of taxpayers, but Republicans want those cuts to continue, especially since some small-business owners would be affected. Republicans say any tax increase now will hurt the economic recovery.

Some analysts have predicted that the next two years will be dominated by partisan gridlock, but Obama laid out several areas of potential collaboration. On energy, he suggested Democrats and Republicans can work together on how best to develop the nation’s natural-gas resources, work on energy efficiency, and ensure that electric cars are developed in the United States. He also spoke of restarting America’s nuclear industry “as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gases.”

Obama said he saw “potential common ground” on education.

“I think everybody in this country thinks that we've got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math background, to compete in this new global economy,” the president said.

Obama identified the debt and deficit as another area where “the American people are absolutely concerned,” and looked ahead to the release Dec. 1 of the recommendations of his bipartisan deficit commission. He said he hoped the members will arrive at a consensus on eliminating programs that don’t work, cutting back on government spending that is inefficient, and streamlining government. But he did not mention entitlements, the growth of which sits at the heart of any discussion on the nation’s looming fiscal crisis.

One reporter asked Obama to reflect on his personal reactions to the midterms, starting with what it felt like to see so many people he had campaigned for lose – starting with Rep. Tom Perriello (D) of Virginia and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) of Ohio.

“It felt bad,” he said, to laughter. “You know, the toughest thing over the last couple of days is seeing really terrific public servants not have the opportunity to serve anymore, at least in the short term.”

Obama was also asked if he would change his leadership style, prompting a soliloquy on, as Obama put it, the “inherent danger in being in the White House and being in the bubble.” He said he would persist in trying to get out and engage with average Americans as much as possible. He was not asked to address head-on the common complaint that he had failed to communicate adequately the content of his initatives – namely, the stimulus and health-care reform – but he suggested that even recent predecessors who were great communicators had suffered similar fates in their first midterms.

“I think it's important to – to point out as well that, you know, 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, you know, the economy wasn't working the way it needed to be,” Obama said.

It went without saying that both presidents also won reelection. Obama has all but said he will run again in 2012.

There were some light moments in the hour-long session. One reporter brought up the frequent campaign line about how the Republicans had “driven the car into the ditch” and that the Democrats were working hard to get it out of the ditch. At one point during the campaign, Obama had joked about how the Republicans were just sitting on the sidelines, sipping Slurpees.

How about having House Speaker-to-be John Boehner over for a Slurpee? the reporter suggested.

“They’re delicious drinks,” Obama smiled. “The Slurpee summit. That’s good. I like that.”

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