West Wing Briefing

After 'shellacking,' Obama continues to point finger at himself

President Barack Obama says that voters frustrated by the pace of economic recovery led to a Republican takeover of the House in midterm elections, adding, 'As president I take responsibility' for a failure to restore job growth more quickly. (Nov. 3)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 3:33 PM

Conservative Democrats have blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the party's Election Day defeat. More liberal Democrats have attacked the Blue Dogs. Nearly all Democrats have criticized the White House for some failing, from not communicating well enough to bungling the stimulus. Pelosi's allies have said the White House didn't sufficiently defend her.

But the nation's top Democrat isn't blaming anyone but himself. In his comments since Election Day, President Obama has praised Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). He has expressed his sadness about the losses of some Democrats in Congress, even as many of them actively blocked his agenda and sharply criticized him. He has, at least for now, stopped blaming former president George W. Bush for what Obama "inherited."

Obama has criticized Republicans in Congress for not working with him, but framed that in a personal way, saying on "60 Minutes" that "I couldn't get the kind of cooperation from Republicans that I'd hoped for."

He has suggested that he and his staff failed to communicate their message effectively, but has not really blamed any of his aides, either.

He heaped praise upon Rahm Emanuel, who orchestrated much of the administration's strategy, when the chief of staff departed last month to run for mayor of Chicago, even as it was clear that the results of Emanuel's time at the helm of the White House would be major GOP gains in Congress. And while Bush sacked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a few days after a defeat in 2006 that stemmed in part from anger about the Iraq war, Obama has not punished Secretary of Treasury Timothy F. Geithner, who Republican leaders say should step down because of the struggling economy.

Obama, who campaigned on changing the tone in Washington, might be setting a new precedent here on at least one issue: personally accepting the blame for his political problems.

"I spent the first two years trying to get policy right based on my best judgment about how we were going to deal with the short-term crisis and how we were going to retool to compete in this new global economy," he told reporters Sunday on the way back to Washington from his trip to Asia. "In that obsessive focus on policy, I neglected some things that matter a lot to people, and rightly so: maintaining a bipartisan tone in Washington; dealing with practices like earmarks that are wasteful at a time of - where everybody else is tightening their belts; making sure that the policy decisions that I made were fully debated with the American people and that I was getting out of Washington and spending more time shaping public opinion and being in a conversation with the American people about why I was making the choices I was making."

He added, "So I think, moving forward, I'm going to redouble my efforts to go back to some of those first principles."

It's not clear that issues like earmarks drove the 2010 elections, or that Obama didn't spend enough time trying to shape the opinions of Americans, since some Democrats worried he was overexposed as he appeared on a range of shows from "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" to "The Daily Show."

And as Republicans have noted, Obama's explanation does not include the health-care bill or the ideology of the administration's policies, both of which the GOP believes drove independent voters from Obama.

But his comments give hints about the future. Obama seems unlikely to dramatically overhaul his staff, try to push Pelosi from her perch as leader of the Democrats in the House or stridently oppose the GOP, as many liberals in his party would like.

Instead, he has hinted that the second stage of his presidency, while not as legislatively focused as the first, might include many familiar elements: constant calls for the parties to work together, even as he pursues largely Democratic policies, aggressive outreach to the public and attempts to convince Americans that he is doing everything he can to spur economic growth.

"My expectation, when I sit down with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner this week, along with the Democratic leaders, is that there are a set of things that need to get done during the lame duck, and that they are not going to want to just obstruct, that they're going to want to engage constructively," he said Sunday in words that could have been uttered at the start of 2009.

"Then we're going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates," he added. "And they should welcome those debates next year."

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