Obama pledges more openness after 'shellacking'

Thursday, November 4, 2010; 8:13 PM

THERE IS A certain sameness to presidential rhetoric in the aftermath of an electoral thumping - or, as President Obama put it, "shellacking." The president acknowledges the voters' verdict, accepts his (unspecified) share of the responsibility, vows to put aside partisan differences to find common-ground solutions. The tone will be more civil, the voters' point taken: They are fed up with Washington business as usual. So it was Wednesday when Mr. Obama came to the microphone to discuss election results that, if not disastrous for his party, came awfully close.

As shellackees go, though, Mr. Obama did not exactly sound chastened - although he allowed that "it feels bad" to see so many lawmakers who supported his policies lose their seats. Mr. Obama did not phrase it in such blunt terms, but his diagnosis about what went wrong boiled down to voter failure, however understandable, to perceive the wisdom of his administration's actions. The economy is stabilized, and jobs are growing in the private sector, Mr. Obama said, yet "people all across America aren't feeling that progress. They don't see it." The administration had to respond to so many emergencies so fast, he added, that "it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people's lives than they were accustomed to" - and the accompanying "price tags" only added to the public's anxiety. Meanwhile, "we were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done." Asked whether the vote reflected a rejection of his administration's policies, Mr. Obama wasn't biting. "If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices," he said.

There is truth in much of Mr. Obama's argument, and as much as Tuesday's outcome was anticipated, it takes some time for any administration in this position to adjust to its changed circumstances. Nonetheless, we would have preferred to see more in the way of a presidential acknowledgement that voters' reaction might be more than simple misperception on their part or failure to communicate adequately on his. Certainly, Mr. Obama's description of his new administration coping with a flurry of emergencies does not extend to his decision to launch an ambitious health-reform agenda in the midst of the maelstrom. Mr. Obama said voters were understandably disappointed that the change in atmosphere he had promised had failed to materialize. But the examples he cited - the "ugly mess" of getting health reform passed, or the fact that he, "in the rush to get things done, had to sign a bunch of bills that had earmarks in them" - involved hard-headed decisions on the part of administration strategists to do what it took to achieve their ends. Those choices may have been correct, but why should voters think Mr. Obama would behave differently when circumstances call for it in the future?

If Mr. Obama faces difficulties operating in a new environment, so, too, do Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a bolstered but potentially fractious caucus. The incoming speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), has the task of joining in governing rather than simply criticizing and maneuvering for advantage. The challenges for the president and congressional Republicans will come quickly: how to handle the expiring tax cuts, what to do about a needed increase in the debt ceiling early next year. Wednesday was full of promises of respectful openness to the other side's positions. The coming months will put those promises to the test.

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