A day after Democrats lost control of the Senate and suffered big losses in House and governors’ races across the country, Obama struck a defiant tone. He defended his policies, stood by his staff and showed few signs of changing an approach to dealing with congressional Republicans that has generated little more than gridlock in recent years.
Rather than accept the election results as a repudiation of his own administration, the president said voters were disenchanted with Washington as a whole. And rather than offering dour assessments of his party’s electoral thrashing, as he did after the 2010 midterms, the president insisted repeatedly that he was optimistic about the country’s future.
“It doesn’t make me mopey,” he said of the election during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. “It energizes me because it means that this democracy’s working.”
The president’s sunny outlook stood in sharp contrast to the gloomy electorate. Most voters leaving polling places said they didn’t have much trust in government and felt the nation was on the wrong track. Those feeling pessimistic were more likely to vote for Republican congressional candidates, according to exit polls.
To some Republicans, the gulf between the public’s mood and the president’s outlook suggested a White House that’s out of touch and refusing to re-calibrate after getting a clear message from voters. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wondered whether Obama was “detached or in denial.”
“In word and tone, he refused to take responsibility or even express humility,” Priebus said. “He seemed to suggest the only ideas he’s willing to listen to are his own, old, failed ones.”
Indeed, Obama spoke only broadly about the need to reassess as he heads into his final two years in office. He said it was “premature” to discuss overhauling his staff or shifting positions on policies. He reasserted his pledge to move forward with executive actions on immigration before the end of the year, despite strong opposition from Republicans. And he rejected the notion that his limited relationships with Republican lawmakers, including the likely Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would hamper potential compromise with the Congress.
Obama’s post-election positioning was part of a calculated strategy from a White House eager to avoid a repeat of 2010, when the president declared that Democrats had suffered a “shellacking”—a blunt assessment that came to define that election. This time around, Obama repeatedly refused to publicly analyze the outcome of the election, saying he didn’t want to “read the tea leaves on election results.”
Privately, Obama’s advisers acknowledge that Tuesday’s outcome was far worse than what they expected. They say Obama’s upbeat approach reflects a president who has spent the past several weeks growing more comfortable with the prospect of Republicans controlling Congress in his final two years in office and is intrigued by the possible opportunities that could open up as a result.
Advisers disputed the Republican criticism that Obama was tone deaf to the need to adjust to Washington’s new political landscape. Announcing an array of administration changes Wednesday would be little more than a gimmick, one adviser said, adding that the president needs to instead show the country over time that he’s committed to working alongside Republicans.
The advisers would only discuss the White House’s internal thinking on the condition of anonymity.
The president’s outreach to Capitol Hill will get underway Friday, when Obama meets with congressional leaders at the White House. And the president suggested he’d be up for more one-on-one time with the presumed Senate majority leader.
“I would enjoy some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell,” said Obama, who last year mocked the idea of having a drink with the GOP leader.
Then, offering a glimpse into how little time Obama has spent cultivating a relationship with McConnell over the past six years, the president added, “I don’t know what his preferred drink is.”