President Obama had a clear message for congressional Republicans in the wake of the GOP's sweeping victories in the Senate and House on Tuesday: Big whoop.
"There's no doubt that Republicans had a good night," Obama said in his opening remarks, the rhetorical equivalent of a slow clap for Republicans. He wouldn't go any further — even when pressed to put a single word to the defeat as he did when he called the 2010 election a "shellacking." He emphasized the number of people — "two thirds" — who didn't vote Tuesday. Despite saying repeatedly that his policies were on the ballot Tuesday, Obama insisted Wednesday that the message of the election wasn't a rejection of those policies but rather a sign that the American public wanted politicians to work together to get things done. Asked whether he had made a mistake by not reaching out to Republicans more in the past few years, Obama let out an audible sigh before answering. He said it was too soon to talk about any personnel changes.
"The principles ... are not going to change," Obama insisted.
It was a striking tonal difference from Obama's approach four years ago in strikingly similar circumstances — his party handed a stinging ballot box defeat due, in no small part, to him and his policies. In 2010, The Washington Post described Obama as "somber" and "reflective" in his day-after-the-election presser. He was anything but today. He was defiant when challenged about whether the election had been a repudiation of his policies, and repeatedly needled Republicans by insisting that now that they were in the majority, he looked forward to their "specific" policy proposals on a variety of issues.
Obama's approach at Wednesday's news conference is reflective of his — and his senior staffs' — thinking about what the election was about. White House aides and allies insisted in private in the final weeks of the election that Senate Democrats' strategy of running away from him was a mistake. Their thinking was that running from Obama not only wouldn't work, since Republicans would bash the ties between the president and Democratic challengers no matter what, but that it would also dampen enthusiasm within the party's base to turn out and vote. Senate Democrats, not surprisingly, blanched at that suggestion. "Turnout was down in almost every state that the president visited, in some cases by significant amounts, which doesn't do much for the argument that the White House is making," said one senior Senate Democrat. (For MUCH more on the contretemps between the White House and Senate Democrats, read this amazing behind-the-scenes look at the election from WaPo's Bob Costa and Phil Rucker.)
The unapologetic Obama, then, is in keeping with where he and his inner circle have been for much of the last two-plus years. It's hard to imagine that the newly-emboldened Republicans in the House and Senate will receive such a message all that kindly. "The American people should be very concerned that their president didn't get the message of yesterday's election," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus just after Obama's news conference concluded.
And Obama threw them zero bones on, well, anything in his news conference. He hit House Speaker John Boehner on the Ohio Republican's inability to get the GOP conference behind an immigration reform bill. On his plans for executive action on immigration — a hot-button issue for Republicans that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had called poisoning the well earlier in the day — Obama was blunt: "I am not going to wait."
What we have here, then, is a failure to communicate. Republicans (as well as many neutral observers, and even many Democratic strategists) believe the election was, fundamentally, a rejection of Obama's policies and, to some extent, his approach to governance. Obama and his inner circle believe it was a function of history (second-term midterm elections are almost uniformly terrible for the president's party) and the end product of a flawed strategy by many Democrats to run away from him and his agenda.
So, that's that. In short: If you're a fan of partisan gridlock, you are going to love the next two years.