By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:02 PM
Barack Obama is a man of many talents. Contrition, however, is not high among them.
The president, facing the media in the East Room the day after what he called his "shellacking" at the polls, admitted it had been a "long night." He confessed that it "feels bad." He acknowledged "sadness" that so many friends and allies had lost their seats.
But what he would not acknowledge is that his policies had in any way contributed to the shellacking and sadness.
The Associated Press's Ben Feller asked if he would concede that the midterms had been "a fundamental rejection of your agenda."
Obama declined. "What they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven't made enough progress on the economy."
NBC's Savannah Guthrie noticed that "you don't seem to be reflecting or second-guessing any of the policy decisions."
"Over the last two years, we have made a series of very tough decisions, but decisions that were right," Obama volleyed.
"You still resist the notion that voters rejected the policy choices you made?"
"Voters are not satisfied with the outcomes," the president said.
No matter how many ways reporters phrased the question, the answer was the same. CNN's ED Henry suggested there may be "a majority of Americans who think your polices are taking us in reverse," and asked: "You just reject that idea altogether that your policies could be going in reverse?"
"Yes," Obama said sharply.
What failures he did admit were those of tactics and communications. It's not that he has poisonous relations with business, he said, but that he needs to do better at "setting the right tone publicly." It's not that his economic policies were flawed, he said, but that people "don't see" the progress.
Peter Baker of the New York Times asked Obama for areas in which he'd be willing to compromise with Republicans. "I've been willing to compromise in the past, and I'm going to be willing to compromise going forward," the president fired back.
Obama ultimately absolved himself of even the communications mistakes he acknowledged. "You know, a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions, because, you know, the economy wasn't working the way it needed to be," he said.
On item after item, Obama indicated there would be no bending. In an opening reference to GOP hopes of repealing the health-care legislation, he said that Americans don't want "to spend the next two years refighting the political battles of the last two." When Fox's Mike Emanuel pointed out that one in two voters, according to exit polls, favors a repeal, Obama replied: "It also means one out of two voters think it was the right thing to do."
The only olive branch extended to Republicans on health care was an admission that a single piece of it, "the 1099 provision," should be dropped because it creates too much paperwork for small business.
He said "everybody in the White House understood" that his efforts to rescue the economy might be portrayed as government intrusions into the private sector, but "we thought it was necessary." He declined to rule out an effort by the EPA to regulate carbon emissions. He vowed to push back against Republican efforts to cut spending on education, research and infrastructure, reminding his audience that "we already had a big deficit that I inherited."
Awaiting Obama's arrival in the East Room, CNN's Henry did a live stand-up speculating about a "mid-course correction" from Obama. But when the president arrived, subdued and in somber gray, his course corrections were largely superficial: He didn't use the teleprompter for his opening statement; he gave the third question to Fox News; and, responding to a suggestion by CBS's Chip Reid, he smiled broadly and said he might host incoming House Speaker John Boehner for a "Slurpee Summit" -- a reference to the 7-Eleven drink Obama had claimed Republicans were sipping while Democrats tried to fix the economy.
On more substantive matters, Obama said he asked himself: "Could I have done something differently?" But he didn't seem to have an answer.
His closest admission to a failure of substance was that he failed in his pledge to "change how business is done in Washington." He explained: "We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done."
In a presidential lament made by many of his predecessors, Obama spoke of "being in the bubble" in the White House. "When you're in this place, it is hard not to seem removed," he said, wishing he could do more to give Americans "confidence that I'm listening to them."
Obama's conclusion: "Getting out of here" -- the White House -- "is good for me."
On that, at least, he'll probably get Republican support.