President Obama conceded Wednesday that the voters had handed him a "shellacking" in the midterm elections and said the "humbling" losses by Democratic officeholders made him "feel bad." But the president refused to concede that his policies were to blame for the shift in public sentiment that flipped control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party.
The president appeared subdued and reflective under the glare of the TV lights and chandeliers in his East Room press conference, his first since the massive overnight shift of power in the House. Several members of the White House press corps pressed him to accept the interpretation that the vote was a broad rejection of the policies he and the outgoing Democratic majority had implemented over the last two years.
But the president insistedthat it was all about the economy. "I think that there is no doubt that people's number one concern is the economy," he said. "And what they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven't made enough progress on the economy."
Obama stuck to the theme he repeated in interviews leading up the election — that his administration had done a lot and that it had not been given enough credit for it. "We've stabilized the economy, we've got job growth in the private sectors, but people all across America aren't feeling that progress," he said. "They don't see it." He added: "So I think I have got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make."
The president said he was looking forward to working with Republicans to find areas of common concern where they could make progress. He said there were a number of areas he could find to work with Republicans, including energy policy. "Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way," he said. "It was a means, not an end."
He said he was open to good ideas from the other side of the aisle but warned, "None of the challenges we face lend themselves to simple solutions or bumper-sticker slogans. Nor are the answers found in any one particular philosophy or ideology. As I've said before, no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom."
The president brushed off threats from the Republicans to dismantle his health care reforms, turning again to his recent campaign theme that Americans would learn to love the reforms once they understood the benefits. He did add that he was willing to work with the Republicans to make the system more efficient, such as modifying a provision that would require small businesses to file federal 1099 tax forms for any transaction over $600.
But Obama also challenged the Republicans to come up with constructive suggestions in moving forward. He pointed out that taxes had been cut substantially between 2001 and 2009 without a commensurate rise in economic expansion. "Well, one of the most important things we can do for debt and deficits is economic growth," he said. "So what other proposals do they have to grow the economy?"
That could well be the theme in coming months: who has better ideas, and which ones will actually work.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.