WASHINGTON – “I hear you,” President Barack Obama said to the voters who gave Democrats an electoral drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
But their message went in one presidential ear and out the other.
The Republican victory was a political earthquake, giving the opposition party control of the Senate, expanding its House majority to a level not seen in generations and burying Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Yet when Obama fielded questions for an hour Wednesday afternoon, he spoke as if Tuesday had been but a minor irritation. He announced no changes in staff or policy, acknowledged no fault or error and expressed no contrition or regret. Though he had called Democrats’ 2010 losses a “shellacking,” he declined even to label Tuesday’s results.
Obama declared that he would continue with plans for executive orders to expand legal status to undocumented immigrants – even though, minutes before Obama’s news conference, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that would be “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Obama repeated a familiar list of priorities – a minimum-wage hike, infrastructure and education spending, climate-change action – and brushed off various Republican proposals.
About the closest Obama got to a concession was offering to have some Kentucky bourbon with McConnell (he had once joked about how unpleasant a drink with McConnell would be) and “letting [House Speaker] John Boehner beat me again at golf.”
President George W. Bush was rarely one to admit error, but on the day after the midterm “thumpin’” Republicans received eight years ago, he responded dramatically. Bush announced the ouster of defense chief Donald Rumsfeld and set in motion a new Iraq policy. He also offered a frank acknowledgment that everything had changed: “The election’s over and the Democrats won, and now we’re going to work together for two years to accomplish big objectives for the country.”
Obama was blase by comparison. “Obviously, Republicans had a good night,” he said, but “beyond that, I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.” The message that Obama took from the election, he said, was that Americans “want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment.”
It’s true that voters are disgusted with both parties, but they were particularly unhappy with Obama. In exit polls, 33 percent said their votes were to show disapproval of him (19 percent said they were showing support).
But Obama wasn’t about to acknowledge fault, or the need for change. He allowed that, as president, he has “a unique responsibility to try and make this town work.” But his solution was to defer responsibility: “I look forward to Republicans putting forward their governing agenda.”
Indeed, Tuesday’s returns did not trouble him greatly, he said. “There are times when you’re a politician and you’re disappointed with election results,” he said. “But maybe I’m just getting older. I don’t know. It doesn’t make me mopey.”
Reporters tried, with little success, to elicit any hint of a new direction from Obama.
“Do you feel any responsibility to recalibrate your agenda?” asked Julie Pace of the Associated Press.
Obama leaned casually on the lectern, left toe touching right heel. “A minimum-wage increase, for example,” he said, is “something I talked about a lot during the campaign.”
But any changes? “Every single day, I’m looking for, ‘How can we do what we need to do better?’” was the vague reply.
ABC News’ Jon Karl asked whether it was “a mistake for you to do so little to develop relationships with Republicans in Congress.”
“Every day I’m asking myself, ‘Are there some things I can do better?’” Obama demurred.
Fox News’ Ed Henry pointed out the obvious: “I haven’t heard you say a specific thing during this news conference that you would do differently.”
Obama restated his passive stance, saying it would be “premature” to talk about changing personnel or policies. “What I’d like to do is to hear from the Republicans.”
NPR’s Scott Horsley gave a last try, asking Obama whether he saw “some shortcoming on your part” because Democratic policies fared better than Democratic candidates. (Minimum-wage increases passed in five states, and exit polls found support for Democratic views on climate change, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and health care.)
Obama replied in the conditional: “If the way we are talking about issues isn’t working, then I’m going to try some different things.”
But after Tuesday, it’s no longer a question of “if.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.