'Soul-searching' inside the White House

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, November 14, 2010

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.

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