Can Obama engage in 'self-critique and self-correction'?

After his party's 'shellacking' in the midterm elections, President Obama is getting lots of advice about changes he needs to make – including changes in his character as well as his style.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington the morning after this past week's midterm elections in which he acknowledges that he took a "shellacking."

If he wasn’t so busy meeting world leaders and acting as chief national salesman for US goods and services in Asia, one could almost imagine that Barack Obama had left the Washington pressure cooker on a sort of soul-searching walkabout this week – listening for guidance and direction as he ponders what went wrong for his party in the midterm elections.

But, no, he’s in India, en route to Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan to do the actual presidential stuff and not just to muse introspectively, although there’s probably some of that too.

Lots of others among the political and pundit classes are doing it for him, though, and by definition that has to get quite personal.

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Mike Allen at has had a look at Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” column in the forthcoming New Yorker. Hertzberg writes:

“Obama's temperament has become a political liability. In 2008, his calm was a synergistic counterpoint to the joyous excitement of the throngs that packed his rallies. In the tidy, quiet isolation of the White House, his serene rationality has felt to many like detachment, even indifference. For him and for the country, the next two years look awfully bleak. Capitol Hill will be like Hamburger Hill, a noisy wasteland of sanguinary stalemate. There will be no more transformative legislation; it will be all Obama can do simply to protect health-care reform from sabotage. The economy, like the climate, will be left to fend for itself. And the world will watch, wonder, and worry.”

A 'fundamentally new Obama'?

On another cheery note, former Newsweek editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham writes in the Washington Post:

“I would not hold out for a fundamentally New Obama. For better or for worse, Obama is today – and will be tomorrow – what he has always been: a bright man engaged in an endeavor that rewards luck and happenstance more often than it does intellect and good intentions…. Obama has always managed to appear detached and clinical. That seemed a virtue during the campaign, in the madness and fear of the economic collapse. Now it seems a vice to those who expected a human figure to perform superhuman feats.”

Obama now faces a majority Republican House of Representatives, as well as a House and Senate figuring out how to deal with the tea party insurgency that upset establishment political plans for many races.

“Maybe some of the big Tea Party ideas will be as popular as the Tea Partiers claim them to be. We won’t know until Congress tries to enact them,” writes Frank Rich in the New York Times. “Nor will we know Obama’s true measure until he provides a coherent alternative of his own about how he intends to put Americans back to work and keep them in their homes. If he has such a plan, few, if any, Americans have any idea what it is.”

The White House bubble

“To do this, he’ll have to break out of the White House bubble he lamented again last week,” Rich writes. “He can no longer limit interactions with actual working Americans to photo ops on factory floors or outsource them to a ‘Middle Class Task Force’ led by Joe Biden. He must move beyond his Ivy League-Wall Street comfort zone to overhaul his economic team.”

Asked at his morning-after press conference Wednesday whether he felt any responsibility or remorse for the “shellacking” he acknowledged his party had taken, Obama said: “I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons. But I do think this is a growth process and an evolution.”

That led John Harris and Glenn Thrush at to wonder whether Obama is capable of growth and evolution.

Even some of his sympathizers regarded Obama’s political setback as a “natural comeuppance for an exceptionally confident man who slipped into overconfidence,” Harris and Thrush write.

“Self-regard can blur into self-delusion,” they write. “According to many Obama supporters and skeptics alike, it is still to be seen whether Obama shares with his most successful predecessors a capacity for self-critique and self-correction.”

That would be Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Each in his own way overcame political setbacks. We’ll see if the same is true for Obama.

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