Obama blames Massachusetts Senate loss on middle-class economic pain

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Republican Scott Brown's stunning Massachusetts Senate victory shook the power balance in Washington. (Jan. 20)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

President Obama on Wednesday blamed the Democrats' stunning loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate on his administration's failure to give voice to the economic frustrations of the middle class, a disconnect that White House aides vowed to quickly address as they continue to work to advance the president's agenda.

Obama said the relentless pursuit of his domestic policies -- and a failure to adequately explain their virtues -- had left Americans with a "feeling of remoteness and detachment" from the flurry of government actions in Washington.

"We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

The admission came as the president's top aides sought to come to terms with political disaster in the aftermath of the GOP's Senate victory in Massachusetts. The surprise outcome -- Republican Scott Brown took the seat of the late Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in the heavily Democratic state -- prompted crowing among GOP leaders and finger-pointing and recrimination among the president's allies.

"The American people, the people of Massachusetts, last night have rejected the arrogance," said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "They are tired of being told by Washington how to think and what to do."

Publicly and privately, aides to the president repeatedly stressed that the White House has heard the message from angry voters. But they insisted that they are not backing away from key items on the president's agenda, including health-care reform, energy and bank regulation.

"That anger is now pointed at us because we're in charge, rightly so," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "I don't believe the president thinks that we should stop fighting for what's important to the middle class, that we should stop fighting for an economic recovery, that we should stop fighting for what we need to do to create an environment for the private sector to hire."

As they huddled behind closed doors in the West Wing, Obama's top aides were glum but undeterred. Several described an atmosphere of resolve not unlike the mood during the toughest moments of the 2008 campaign.

One top adviser insisted that "the White House gets it. We're not oblivious. We're not proceeding ahead as if it didn't happen."

But the early consensus inside the White House, they said, was to pursue a renewed effort to explain the difficult choices Obama has made. They said that the election results will not force a radical rethinking of his agenda and that the White House will attempt to convince Americans that his policies on the economy and jobs will eventually turn things around.

"What the president needs to do is go explain to the people exactly why what has been done is going to get us on a better path for the future," said former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn, who still regularly provides advice on communications strategy. "What the president is doing now to create jobs, to build a better economic future -- that is something that contrasts very well with the Republicans' refusal to do anything."

The White House had already begun a determined effort to pivot its message to expressions of concern about the economy and jobs as it prepares for congressional midterm elections in November. Tuesday's defeat made that shift in rhetoric even more urgent.

David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, said on MSNBC that the "main thing" to come out of the election results was a reminder that Obama and his party will be judged by whether people feel economically secure in the weeks and months ahead.

"The main thing that we saw in Massachusetts was the same sense of concern on the part of middle-class folks about the economic situation, about their wages being stagnant, about their jobs being lost," he said. "That's something that we have to pay a great deal of attention to."

While some lawmakers and pundits began predicting a full-scale retreat from the president's health-care reform effort, White House advisers said they are unwilling to accept defeat -- yet. Obama's closest advisers refused to express panic about the issue and vowed to find a way to proceed with some version of health-care reform.

Axelrod called the current health-care system "a real crisis" that is "part of what middle-class people are struggling with." Obama "believes we ought to deal with that crisis," he said. "It's not an option to simply walk away from a problem that's only going to get worse."

The president's aides were quick to accept some blame yesterday for the loss of the Senate seat but also offered a long list of failings by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and her team, including her decision to vacation during the campaign and a failure to vigorously pursue votes during the final weeks.

White House aides rejected the idea that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on Obama. The Democratic candidate was leading by double digits just weeks ago, an indication, they said, that the political environment set by the president was not dragging her down.

But they struggled to explain how a Democratic Party that found such success in 2008 has now lost three consecutive major races, including contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia last November.

One senior Democratic strategist said that in conversations he had with party leaders, there seemed to be an unwillingness on the part of the White House to acknowledge the party's new problem with independent voters, who were key to Obama's victory.

"Democrats on the Hill and in the White House don't seem to get that independent voters are upset with them," said the source, who spoke candidly about the president and his team on the condition of anonymity.

Administration officials said the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat might give upcoming races across the country a jolt, awakening state parties to the perils of fielding weak candidates and giving national Democrats justification to weigh in on problematic campaigns. If there is a silver lining, they said, it is that no Democrats are now unaware of how endangered their power -- and their congressional majority -- is.

Asked whether Obama was having a bad day, Dunn laughed and asked: "Why? Because he's only got 59 votes in the Senate? Can we get a little perspective here, people?"

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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