The day after a sweeping repudiation of his party in the midterm election, President Obama acknowledged that his presidency has entered its winding-down phase and vowed to spend “every moment of the next two-plus years doing my job the best I can.”
Yet the president also sounded as though he was already speaking to the country from some time in the future. His ruminations had an elegiac tinge, and could have been the first draft of his presidential memoir.
“One of the nice things about being in the sixth year of your presidency is you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and you’ve gotten more than your fair share of attention,” he said at an hour-long news conference Wednesday at the White House.
“I’ve had the limelight, and there have been times when the requests for my appearances were endless. There have been times where, politically, we were down,” he continued. “And it all kind of evens out, which is why what’s most important, I think, is keeping your eye on the ball, and that is . . . actually getting some good done.”
He noted that the electoral debacle of 2014 had come six years to the day after his triumphal appearance in Chicago’s Grant Park to celebrate his 2008 election on a platform of hope and change.
“The fact is, I still believe in what I said when I was first elected six years ago last night,” Obama said. “All the maps plastered across our TV screens today, and for all the cynics who say otherwise, I continue to believe we are simply more than just a collection of red and blue states. We are the United States.”
Obama betrayed no trace of doubt or regret about the path upon which he has taken the country. Nor did he indicate that he plans to significantly alter that course, which is one reason that many in both parties believe the final years of Obama’s presidency will see yet more gridlock.
Some of his ideas were vindicated Tuesday, even as his fellow Democrats were rejected by the voters, Obama said.
“In the five states where a minimum-wage increase was on the ballot last night, voters went 5-for-5 to increase it,” Obama said. “That will give about 325,000 Americans a raise in states where Republican candidates prevailed. So that should give us new reason to get it done for everybody with a national increase in the minimum wage.”
Exit polls, however, told another story about how the country feels these days about Obama’s vision of an activist, muscular government.
Seventy-nine percent of those who were asked whether they trust Washington to do the right thing answered only sometimes — or never. Fifty-four percent said the government is doing many things better left to business or individuals.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Obama invited the Republicans, who in January will control both houses of Congress, to bring their ideas to him. He said he would look at those proposals to determine whether there was anywhere they “overlap” with his own.
But he did not speak of trying to find middle ground on areas of fundamental disagreement.
“Everybody in this White House is going to look and say, ‘All right, what do we need to do differently?’ ” Obama said. “But the principles that we’re fighting for — the things that motivate me every single day and motivate my staff every day — those things aren’t going to change.”
“My job over the next couple of years is to do some practical, concrete things as much as possible with Congress,” he added. “If it’s not possible with Congress, on my own.”
For instance, Obama said he does not plan to change his strategy on immigration, where he is expected to make good on a promise to lift the threat of deportation from some undocumented immigrants.
That move is certain to inflame the issue, and even some of his allies worry it would kill what little chance remains for comprehensive legislation.
Part of his determination to stay the course may be rooted in the fact Obama has become even more isolated and insular. Democratic allies on Capitol Hill who voted in lock step with him now blame him for their loss of power. His circle of advisers is smaller.
“It feels even more than it usually does like a bunker down there,” said one former top aide who recently visited the White House, and who asked for anonymity to speak frankly.
The president conspicuously avoided labeling what had happened Tuesday night. He offered nothing that headline writers might seize upon, as they did when he described Democratic losses in 2010 as a “shellacking.”
And he did not confess to the kind of self-doubt — “a lot of questioning on my part” — that he said he was experiencing back then.
In the aftermath of 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House, Obama and Republicans made an effort at a “grand bargain” on entitlements and taxes that eventually sputtered.
Neither side appears to have much appetite for that kind of engagement now. Instead, both are turning their attention to 2016, positioning themselves for the election that will determine Obama’s replacement.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the likely incoming Senate majority leader, frequently notes that periods of divided government have often been the times in history when the most gets done.
After Obama’s reelection in 2012, he studied the second terms of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, looking for things he and his aides might try themselves.
But now, the president’s advisers say, the country is in uncharted political waters that have been rendered nearly unnavigable by partisanship. As he begins to write the final chapter of his presidency, Obama continues to express an idealistic confidence in the country and its aspirations. But he seems to have given up on changing Washington.
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.