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'Soul-searching' Obama aides: Democrats' midterm election losses a wake-up call
Right after the Democrats' heavy losses in the 1994 midterms, Stanley Greenberg, President Bill Clinton's pollster, recalled going to a meeting to map out their comeback strategy. "We met in the Cabinet room two days after and talked about what we were going to do. It had nothing to do with what we ultimately did," Greenberg said, laughing.
For Clinton, he said, figuring out his strategy took nearly six months and continually changed. The same is likely to be true with Obama.
"Who knows where this is going? They may not know," Greenberg said. More important, he said, referring to Obama, "he may not know."
Obama's advisers held no political summit to discuss the midterm results, one said, but rather worked on the problems individually. Regular political meetings are expected to resume after Obama's return.
Some of the building blocks for 2011 are falling into place. The two set pieces at the beginning of every year are the budget, which the White House sends to Congress, and the State of the Union address. Together they will reveal many of Obama's designs on the economy, his spending - and, perhaps, cutting - priorities and his overarching narrative about how he thinks the next two years will proceed.
"The State of the Union will really be, I think, the target for 'Did they really learn anything?' " said Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton White House press secretary. "Everything else is going to be white noise."
One senior official said the key is to neither overreact nor underreact to the midterms but to accurately pinpoint the areas that were truly problematic for the president and try to act on them.
An overreading of the election - something the White House thinks many political pundits have done - would include exaggerations about the lack of youth turnout. In the end, young voters were not as motivated as they were in 2008. But in midterms they rarely are.
Obama will need to energize his core coalition, made up of young, African American and Hispanic voters, and to reengage single women. Yet he does not need to behave as though his base has collapsed, his advisers said. Hispanics helped Democrats retain the Senate, serving as a fire wall in Nevada and California.
On the other hand, "underreading it would be to think that we did all the right things and didn't say them the right way, and if people had just listened they would have gotten it," one senior administration official said. "That's not what we think. That's not what the president thinks."