Advice For A President Facing Midterm Losses

As soon as the final election results are in, the question on the table for President Obama will be — now what? The president will address the nation Tuesday. What should he say? NPR's Mara Liasson collected some advice, and has this report.

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As soon as the final results are in from today's elections, President Obama will have to reckon with two very important words: Now what?

Mr. Obama and his speechwriters are already working on the remarks he will deliver tomorrow. They're wrestling not only with what he should say, but with how far he should extend a hand of cooperation, and how much he should push back against Republicans. Not surprisingly, in a town full of people paid to give their opinions, advice is cheap and plentiful.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson collected a bunch of it, and she prepared this report.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama's remarks tomorrow might just be some of the most important he's ever uttered.

Mr. GEOFF GARIN (Democratic Strategist): That's going to be a critical moment for President Obama. It's going to be a soul-searching moment.

LIASSON: That's Democratic strategist Geoff Garin. Perhaps even more important than what happens tonight is how President Obama interprets the results tomorrow. Here's Garin's advice.

Mr. GARIN: The American people delivered a message in the election, and it's important in some form or fashion for the president to let Americans know that he received that message.

LIASSON: Does the president think the election results were caused by a flood of undisclosed campaign contributions? Or, as he said recently at a fundraiser, because people aren't quote, hard-wired to think clearly when they're scared about the economy? No one thinks either of those strike the right tone.

Here's John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff when Republicans controlled the Congress.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (Former Chief of Staff, Clinton Administration): I think he's going to have to find a way to say to the American people that he understands their frustration, that he's absorbed the anger of the inability to get the economy rolling to produce more jobs. Here's going to have to dig down deep and express to people that he gets their pain and their anger, and that he intends to do something about it over the next couple years.

LIASSON: That might be hard for the cool, cerebral president to express. But dealing with what's expected to by a thumping, as George W. Bush called it when he lost control of Congress, is hard for any president.

Bill Galston was a top aide to Bill Clinton when he suffered a similar setback 16 years ago.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Presidential Aide): Bill Clinton was dealt a staggering blow in November of 1994. It was one of the most psychologically remarkable periods I've ever lived through.

First of all, Bill Clinton immediately understood that he had to change. No matter how good a job he thought he had done, he had to acknowledge that the American people disagreed with his self-assessment. He had to take that on board. He had to change strategy, tactics and personnel.

LIASSON: And, Galston says...

Mr. GALSTON: That requires not only flexibility but a degree of insight and humility. And I think it's quite likely that President Obama will be tested to discover whether he has the same virtues.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, the president is expected to renew his call for bipartisanship and even suggest some areas, like deficit reduction, where he thinks it might be possible.

But he's also likely to heed the advice of Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, who was a top Clinton White House aide.

Mr. HAROLD ICKES (Former Presidential Aide): I remember going over to Bill Clinton the night of the '94 elections to inform him - quote, officially - of what we already knew that we'd lost both the House and the Senate. He was very unhappy and I said, Mr. President, look at it this way: Better that we lose the House than control it by two or three votes. Put the burden on them. Let Mr. Gingrich step up and now, he has to perform.

LIASSON: President Obama, Ickes says, should try to shift some responsibility to the Republicans.

Mr. ICKES: He can point to them and say, okay, let's go. You're now there; let's get something done for the country.

LIASSON: And, says Galston, what the president says this week is just the first step in a wrenching but potentially fruitful process of reinventing his presidency. He'll get another chance early next year.

Mr. GALSTON: One of the most important opportunities that he has to do that is in the 2011 State of the Union address, which I believe is emerging as one of the truly defining moments of his presidency. If he can sieze that opportunity to create a different dialogue and a different dynamic, I believe that he will be on the road to recovery and success.

If not if he tries to square the circle, if he hasn't yet made the psychological leap to acknowledging that he bears some share of responsibility for whatever reverses his party has experienced, then I think it's going to come across as grudging, half-hearted, and not credible.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, at 1 o'clock in the East Room of the White House, the president will hold a press conference and explain what he thinks happened on Election Day, why it happened, and what he's going to do about it.

Mara Liasson, NPR New, Washington.

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