Obama Outlines What Went Wrong, What's Next

A day after Democrats suffered big losses in the midterm elections, President Obama held a news conference to describe his plan for moving forward.

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And Im Renee Montagne. Good morning.

This week's election guarantees that President Obama's next two years in office will be very different from his first two. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, it will be much more difficult for the White House to get legislation through Congress. Mr. Obama held a news conference at the White House yesterday, to describe his plans for working with a divided Congress.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro

ARI SHAPIRO: When Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006, President George W. Bush called it a thumping. Twelve years before that, when Democrats lost the House and Senate, President Clinton said: We were held accountable.

Keenly aware of how history repeats itself, President Obama, yesterday, seemed to take some solace in what happened to his predecessors. He called the experience a growth process, and said: This is something I think every president needs to go through.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking, like I did last night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: You know, I'm sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.

SHAPIRO: That moment of levity was the exception in an otherwise somber post-mortem with the media. One reporter after another asked him, in essence, how does it feel?

President OBAMA: It feels bad.

(Soundbite of murmuring)

President OBAMA: You know, the toughest thing, over the last couple of days, is seeing really terrific public servants not have the opportunity to serve any more.

SHAPIRO: The president spent much of the news conference defending his policy choices. He said he believes the backlash against his party was largely due to the sluggish economic recovery.

President OBAMA: If, right now, we had five percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have had more confidence in those policy choices.

SHAPIRO: But he also talked at length about how he can work with Republicans in the next two years, hoping to reverse what has been a near total lack of bipartisanship until now.

Mr. Obama's rhetoric yesterday recalled, at several points, the message that President Clinton tried to deliver in 1994, and even President Reagan's speech on the morning after the 1982 midterms.

President RONALD REAGAN: We look forward to working with this Congress now, in bipartisan fashion, to solving the major problems that still have to be solved.

SHAPIRO: That was then. This is now.

President OBAMA: And that's going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus...

Responsibly in Washington, we want you to work harder to arrive at consensus.

The question's going to be, can Democrats and Republicans sit down together and come up with...

Again, the question's going to be, do we all come to the table with an open mind and say to ourselves what do we think is actually going to make a difference...

I've been willing to compromise in the past, and I'll going to be willing to compromise going forward...

SHAPIRO: It's similar to the message Mr. Obama has delivered from time to time for the last two years, that no one party has a monopoly on good ideas.

Mr. Obama named specific areas where he thinks the two parties can reach agreement: Cutting the deficit, improving education, simplifying the tax code, and ending earmarks. His tone, on the whole, was more conciliatory than combative; very different from some of the newly-empowered Republicans in Congress.

The top Republican Senator, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, held a press conference on Capitol Hill, yesterday, where he said the American people voted for change, and there are two ways to get there.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Minority Leader): Our friends on the other side can change now, and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people - that we all understood. Or, further change obviously can happen in 2012.

SHAPIRO: This back and forth sounds very familiar to Pat Griffin, who was Legislative Affairs director in the Clinton White House.

Mr. PAT GRIFFIN (Former Director, Legislative Affairs, White House): I think the real question is, whether or not the opposition really sees it in their self-interest to cooperate on any matter; and if so, what matter and then, when.

SHAPIRO: In the '90s, there was a year and a half of outright war between congressional Republicans and President Clinton. Eventually, the two sides decided to work together on issues such as updating welfare.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Both sides have to say it is our now-political self-interest to try to find a way to make a deal. I don't think that threshold decision has been made either in general or in specific.

SHAPIRO: It's a decision both sides will consider, as they prepare for the Washington realignment that takes effect when the new Congress takes office in January.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: We're hearing many voices, throughout the program today, on the results of the election. Elsewhere, we've heard from John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the House; members of the Tea Party Movement; Democrats; Republicans; analysts. And you can get the full picture at NPR.org.

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Obama Humbled By Election 'Shellacking'

President Obama during a speech the day after the midterm elections.

Hours after Republicans captured the House of Representatives and slashed the Democratic majority in the Senate, a subdued President Obama said in a White House news conference that voters were mostly preoccupied with the slow economic recovery. Obama would not concede that a Republican election rout marked a massive repudiation of his agenda, but he did shoulder the blame for deep voter frustration over the economy. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A sober President Obama acknowledged Wednesday that he took "a shellacking" in the midterm election and that his once highflying relationship with the American voter had hit rocky times.

"There is an inherent danger in being in the White House and being in the bubble," said the president, whose party on Tuesday lost control of the House in a historic Republican wave. The GOP is expected to gain at least 60 seats, the biggest increase in more than seven decades. Democrats barely clung to their Senate majority.

"The responsibilities of this office are so enormous," Obama said, that "sometimes we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place."

Working With Republicans

The president, who drew comparisons with midterm losses suffered by presidents Reagan and Clinton during their first terms, pledged to work with GOP leaders on issues ranging from tax cuts to modest forward movement on energy policy,

But he warned Republicans that while frustrated voters may have spurned him and his party, they want to move forward and not "relitigate" the past two years.

GOP leaders, including House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, clearly disagree: They say they are poised to immediately start overhauling the recent health care legislation. At a Wednesday morning press conference, Boehner referred to the health care initiative as a "monstrosity" that needs to be replaced.

McConnell said voters sent a message that they want to stop Obama's agenda. Republican leaders say they are committed to a smaller government and have called for discretionary spending to be curtailed to 2008 levels.

Gridlock Or Common Ground?

Obama defended his administration's initiatives — from the economic stimulus package to the auto industry bailout, as well as the health care bill — as tough decisions that were "right for moving the country forward."

"It's understandable that folks said to themselves, maybe this is the agenda as opposed to a response to an emergency," he said, and viewed it as an overreach with the "price tags that went with that."

He suggested that Americans would have been more confident in the administration's actions if the nation's unemployment rate was 5 percent now instead of 9.6 percent.

While legislative gridlock seems likely going into the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama listed several areas that he believes Democrats and Republicans may find common ground.

He wants to renew a conversation on energy policy — though something far less than the comprehensive House plan that stalled in the Senate. He said he's open to negotiating terms of the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at year's end, and he even said he was open to tweaking health care legislation in areas of concern to Republicans.

Republicans are looking to permanently extend Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans; Democrats — including Obama — have sought to end those cuts, but extend tax cuts for the middle class. The president Wednesday appeared newly open to negotiation.

Obama also touted his coming trip to Asia as proof of his administration's efforts to open markets and create new American jobs.

An 'Ugly Mess'

He also took a look back at the past two years and acknowledged that he had disappointed supporters.

"When I won election in 2008, one of the reasons I think that people were excited about the campaign was the prospect that we would change how business is done in Washington," he said. "And we were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done. And I think that frustrated people."

He seemed contrite when asked specifically about the wheeling and dealing that he and the administration engaged in during the health care debate.

The negotiations, he said, were an "ugly mess" and affected how people ultimately viewed the final legislation. "I regret that we couldn't have made the process more, healthier than it ended up being," he said. "But I think the outcome was a good one."

Obama took responsibility for Tuesday's losses, expressed sadness for Democratic lawmakers who lost while standing by the administration's policies, and defended his more controversial efforts. Pronouncing himself humbled, he pledged to negotiate with Republicans on a much less aggressive agenda.

"Over the last two years we have made progress," Obama said, "but clearly too many Americans haven't felt that progress yet and they told us that yesterday.

"As president, I take responsibility for that," he said.

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