'Soul-searching' Obama aides: Democrats' midterm election losses a wake-up call

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 12:41 AM

After nearly two weeks of introspection, President Obama's top advisers have concluded that the "shellacking" Democrats took on Election Day was caused in large part by their own failure to live up to expectations set during the 2008 campaign, not merely the typical political cycles and poor messaging they pointed to at first.

While the president has been on a trip to Asia for the past 10 days, all but a few of his top aides stayed behind to figure out what went so wrong and what to do about it. Wearing casual clothes and with the White House to themselves, they determined that the situation they face is serious and will take significant adjustments to reverse.

The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.

Even more important, senior administration officials said, Obama will need to oversee tangible improvements in the economy. They cannot just keep arguing, as Democrats did during the recent campaign, that things would have been worse if not for administration policies.

One adviser said they spent the past dozen days "soul-searching."

Another said that, around the White House, "people aren't just sitting around doing soul-searching. They're gaming out the short, medium and long term."

"People have given a lot of thought to this," said that adviser, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss internal deliberations.

In some ways, they said, the midterms were not as bleak a harbinger as some Democrats fear. Though Republicans took the House and narrowed the Democratic margin in the Senate, Obama's personal-approval ratings remain high and his core constituencies remain highly supportive. Re-energizing them will be among his priorities.

Officials stressed that the plans for the coming weeks are still being formed and are likely to evolve, especially as they determine what issues are most viable during the lame-duck session of Congress, which begins this week. Obama returns from Japan on Sunday.

Advisers also said it will probably take months, if not longer, to develop a strategy for restoring some of the early promise of the Obama presidency, particularly the notion that he was a different kind of Democrat.

In a nod to that ambition, his weekly address Saturday focused on earmark reform, one way, Obama said, of "restoring public trust." Republican leaders in the House are preparing a vote on earmark bans next week, although in their own address Saturday they made no mention of working with the president on the issue.

Chance for compromise?

Over the next few days, White House officials said they will begin to gauge whether they can forge an alliance with any top Republicans, many of whom are scheduled to attend a bipartisan meeting at the White House on Thursday. Although Obama could benefit from a high-profile compromise - perhaps on extending the Bush-era tax cuts or on other tax initiatives set to expire before the end of the year - officials are also prepared to point out any Republican intransigence.

"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.

Whether Obama will find a partner in Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), presumed to be the next House speaker, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is an open question.

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.

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.

Starting point

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."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company