In an hour-long speech followed by a question and answer session in the White House’s East Wing, a day after the election, President Barack Obama said, “I take responsibility,” on a number of points. And no acceptance of blame was more crucial and telling than the tidal wave, or “shellacking,” as he put it, that gave Republicans control over the House of Representatives.
“Over the last two years, we’ve made progress, but clearly too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet. They told us that yesterday,” he said, his voice trailing off. “As president, I take responsibility for that.”
He took responsibility for not communicating in clearer terms some of the successes of his administration, especially health care reform, and he took responsibility for not maintaining a closer relationship with the American people.
“There is an inherent danger in being in the White House, in being in the bubble,” he began, “and the track record has been that when I’m out of this place, that’s not an issue.” The White House and its duties and responsibilities made it difficult for him to relate or to engage Americans on a day-to-day basis, he added.
These and other things Obama promised to emend, particularly “working harder to build a consensus…and adding civility to our discourse.”
During the question and answer session, he was asked on several occasions if the Republicans’ victories across the country were a referendum on his policies. As he saw it, the election was an expression of the American people voicing their frustration, mainly about the economy and the lack of jobs.
“They believed that government was much more intrusive,” Obama said, “but it was an emergency situation and we did what we thought was necessary,” referring to the various stimulus programs to salvage Wall Street, the automobile industry, and head off a depression.
But the central point of his speech was the promise to work with Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders. Boehner is slated to take over as speaker of the House now that the Republicans have the majority at 242 to 193.
The president also stated that one of things on his agenda going forward was to “make sure taxes don’t go up on middle-class families.”
While it is not usual for the sitting party in power to lose a certain number of seats during the midterm elections, the GOP acquired far more than the 39 seats needed, creating one of the largest margin of victories in years.
As if “feeling bad” about the devastating GOP power shift wasn’t enough, Obama took a symbolic beating in his home state of Illinois, when Mark Kirk, a Republican, defeated Alexi Giannoulias for the senatorial seat once occupied by the president.
Democrats can take some measure of solace in maintaining control of the Senate, though even here the Republicans gained some ground, winning six new seats while the Democrats made no gains. As we go to press, the races in Washington and Alaska, where write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski is battling Tea Party-backed Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, are still too close to call.
No matter what happens in Washington, where Democratic incumbent Patty Murray has a slim lead over Republican Dino Rossi, Democrats will have the majority of 52 seats to the Republicans 47.
The jury is still out on the overall impact of the Tea Party on the elections since they had as many victories as defeats, and none more significant than Sharron Angle’s loss to Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who was struggling for his political life against the insurgent.
Perhaps now, with a very contentious election behind them, the Democrats and Republicans can find that “common ground” that Obama wished for. But that may be too optimistic an outlook for a future that portends more bitter disagreements between the parties.
Obama believed that the American people “wanted everybody to act more responsibly and arrive at a consensus.” Indeed, the two parties may share a common mission. The problem is the process of achieving that goal, which, if the past is prologue, will be ugly and messy.