President Obama waxed both defiant and philosophical in a 74-minute press conference Wednesday, one day after his party lost control of the Senate in midterm elections.
Mr. Obama pledged to “try different things” to improve his working relationship with top Republicans, “whether it’s having a drink with Mitch McConnell or letting John Boehner beat me again at golf,” he said, citing the Senate and House GOP leaders.
But the president also refused to back down from his plan to announce executive action aimed at deferring deportation for another as-yet undefined class of undocumented immigrants, a long-anticipated move. In 2012, the Obama administration deferred deportations for immigrants brought into the US illegally as children, known as Dreamers.
Obama said that acting on his own would not preclude Congress from acting, and that whatever action he takes would be replaced by what Congress does.
“You send me a bill that I can sign, and those executive actions go away,” the president told reporters in the East Room of the White House. “That’s a commitment I made not just to the American people and to businesses and evangelical community and law enforcement folks and everybody who’s looked at this issue and thinks that we need immigration reform, that’s a commitment that I also made to John Boehner – that I would act in the absence of action by Congress.”
Obama said he would announce his immigration move before the end of the year.
Senator McConnell of Kentucky, likely the next Senate majority leader, said in a separate press conference just before Obama’s that executive action on immigration would “poison the well” for bipartisan efforts on the issue.
When told what McConnell had said, Obama seemed undeterred. He also resisted efforts by reporters to get him to characterize Tuesday’s election results – after his famous comment four years ago, when he described the 2010 midterm result as a “shellacking" for Democrats. On Tuesday, Republicans gained at least seven Senate seats – more than enough to retake the upper chamber after eight years in the minority. Republicans also gained at least 12 House seats and won three governorships in blue states.
Instead, Obama described himself as “optimistic” about the nation’s future, and energized, even after an election that was seen as a slap at his presidency.
“Maybe I’m just getting older – I don't know,” he said. The election result “doesn't make me mopey. It energizes me because it means that this democracy is working.”
He credited the Republicans for running “good campaigns” and said he felt the American people had sent a message, as they had for the last several elections: that the people they send to Washington need to work hard and “get the job done.”
But, he added, as president, he has a unique responsibility to try to make Washington work.
“So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” Obama said. “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
When asked if it was time for him to have a drink with McConnell – after joking about it at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner – he suggested a certain beverage McConnell's home state is famous for.
“You know, actually, I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell,” Obama said.
Then he took the opportunity to say nice things about the Republicans’ Senate leader.
“He has always been very straightforward with me,” Obama said. “To his credit, he has never made a promise that he couldn’t deliver.”
Obama added that McConnell has always given him “realistic assessments” of what he can get through his caucus and what he can’t – “and so I think we can have a productive relationship.”
On Friday, the president is hosting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders at the White House to, as he put it, “chart a new course forward.”