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'Soul-searching' Obama aides: Democrats' midterm election losses a wake-up call
"Very clearly, the Republicans have been given greater authority, and with that authority comes responsibility," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. "People are looking for progress, not gridlock."
Another senior official acknowledged that the trust level between the two sides heading into Thursday's meeting is relatively low, saying the White House is "hopeful but not naive" about striking a deal.
Both Republicans have indicated a willingness to find common ground, but both have also suggested that working with the White House won't be a top priority. McConnell has said flatly that his primary goal over the next two years is to make sure Obama is not reelected.
"One day they say they want to work with us, another day McConnell says his first priority is to defeat the president," one official said. If Obama is going to strike deals, it "could be different people on different issues."
One of the many questions Obama faced immediately after Election Day was whether he "got it" - got, that is, voters' frustration with his governance and policies. Obama hinted that he did in some respects, noting that his failure to make government more transparent or to curb earmarks did not live up to the high standards he had set.
Once he is back in Washington, Obama will make a more overt effort to demonstrate that he is addressing those promises, aides said. The president's advisers hope that a series of upcoming personnel moves - coming as outside critics call for a White House shake-up - will put Obama in a stronger position to make substantive progress, especially on the economy.
Certain changes are imminent, including some steps that were underway but have now taken on new importance, such as finding a replacement for economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers and getting Jacob Lew confirmed at the Office of Management and Budget. Both those moves are expected by the end of the year.
Shortly thereafter - probably following the State of the Union address in late January - Axelrod will leave, with former campaign manager David Plouffe moving into the White House to assume a similar role, advisers said. And Pete Rouse, the acting chief of staff, is about to complete an assessment of the White House bureaucracy that could lead to more personnel shifts.
The changes, however, will not come in a dramatic fashion, as President George W. Bush's firing of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld right after the 2006 midterms did. Outsiders expect the changes to feel subtle, given the Obama track record.
"There isn't going to be a reset button. That's not their style," said a Democratic strategist who works with the White House on several issues. "They don't like pivots, and they also believe they're right."
Nor would it necessarily be wise for Obama to make sudden changes just days after an election that rendered mixed results, outside Democrats said.