The day after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms, President Barack Obama took to the podium in the White House East Room and acknowledged that he and his party had just taken a “shellacking.”
So even though he declined to characterize Tuesday’s GOP Senate takeover at his Wednesday postmortem, it’s probably safe to call it the shellacking part deux.
Think about it: The only bright spot on Tuesday for the president’s party was the re-election of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)—who prevailed against former Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown—meaning that the only key Senate race Democrats could pull off was one where the Republican was a carpetbagger.
And yet, all things considered, at his Wednesday presser, Obama was surprisingly buoyant—showing some signs of life that he probably should have shown during the last several months of the election cycle.
So, OK, he’s a confident guy. That’s why he’s president. And at some future point, I’ll address that separately. But in the meantime, the midterms were still a wake-up call.
Here are a few thoughts coming out of the election that Obama might want to consider.
1. Better messaging.
In the East Room Wednesday, Obama finally said, “This country has made real progress since the crisis six years ago. The fact is, more Americans are working. Unemployment has come down. More Americans have health insurance. Manufacturing has grown. Our deficits have shrunk. Our dependence on foreign oil is down, as are gas prices. Our graduation rates are up. Our businesses aren’t just creating jobs at the fastest pace since the 1990s—our economy is outpacing most of the world. But we’ve just got to keep at it until every American feels the gains of a growing economy where it matters most, and that’s in their own lives.”
But where has that Obama been all year? In 2014 Democrats either couldn’t or wouldn’t run on an economic message, which says, among other things, that Team Obama isn’t good at selling good news. They need to rethink their messaging because no one is going to brag about their record if they don’t do it themselves.
2. Stop narrating the presidency.
Before the returns came in Tuesday, Obama analyzed the midterms by noting that his party was defending seats in “probably the worst-possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower.” And that’s true—they faced an uphill climb from the start. But he’s not a talk show host. He’d be better off if he stuck to talking about what he’s doing—not the environment he’s doing it in—and started resisting his habit of thinking aloud about the political landscape in real time. It doesn’t help.
3. Proceed with caution.
The lesson Republicans will take from 2014 is that it pays, politically, to refuse to compromise. So now, with the GOP promising to “send the president bill after bill until he wearies of it,” Obama has to pick his battles carefully. He’ll have to veto some bills and draw the line somewhere, but he’ll also have to trade some concessions (Keystone XL pipeline, anyone?) if he hopes to avoid something like the sequester (part deux) that could reverse those gradual improvements that the economy is making—you know, those same ones he finally bragged about.
4. Do less.
And when you consider that Obama is already prosecuting a war against ISIS, is (hopefully) trying to clean up Veterans Affairs and will likely have to keep fighting off attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he’s already got a full plate. He’ll leave office two years from now in better shape if he focuses on seeing through the projects that he’s already started on, not taking on bold new initiatives.
And that sort of leads us to …
5. Don’t tackle immigration.
Yes, the president wants to salvage his 2008 promise to bring 10 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants out of legal limbo. And yes, as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart writes, keeping that promise is overdue. But his announced plan to bypass Congress would very likely put impeachment—a favorite subject for Republicans—back on the table, jeopardizing the rest of Obama’s legacy.
It would also take the pressure off Republicans to deal with the issue themselves.
Inaction on immigration would be a disappointing outcome, particularly for Latino voters. But the midterms were a political reality check.
And right now for Obama, that’s the political reality.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.