After midterm elections, Obama vows to work with, and without, Congress
In a sign of how he intends to govern under a new political order with ascendant Republican leaders, Obama renewed his commitment to act on his own to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
His remarks, at a news conference in the East Room of the White House, were meant to put the vitriol of the campaign behind him – he responded to disaffected Americans by saying that “I hear you” and that his election mandate was to “get stuff done.” But his promised action on immigration underscored the profound partisan disagreements that persist in Washington.
Republicans quickly accused the president of reaching out to them with one hand while slapping them with the other.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a Republican who is line to be the majority leader in the new Congress, warned Obama in a news conference in Louisville not to act on immigration on his own.
“It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” McConnell said.
The back-and-forth came on a grim day at the White House after an election that cost the Democrats the Senate and called into question the president’s capacity to accomplish much of substance for his remaining time in office. For all the talk of cooperation, Obama confronted the reality that gridlock may still rule Washington, curtailing his legacy and frustrating his lofty ambitions.
Obama seemed determined not to let the setback consume what is left of his presidency. Relentlessly cheerful during his afternoon news conference, Obama congratulated Republicans on their election success and offered words of conciliation. But he volunteered little regret or a sense that he needed to change course.
“It doesn’t make me mopey, it energizes me, because it means that this democracy’s working,” Obama said of his party’s defeat. He struck a carefully upbeat tone, declining to “read the tea leaves” of the election or to be baited into giving it a name, along the lines of the “shellacking” he said his party had taken in the 2010 congressional elections.
Still, he noted that Republicans had had a “good night,” and conceded that he was responsible for allaying the concerns of Americans who have become convinced that Washington is dysfunctional and unresponsive to their needs.
“As president, they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly,” Obama said.
The ultimate lesson of the election, he said, was that both parties should do more to work together. He called on Congress to quickly pass an emergency request for funding to combat Ebola, and announced that he would seek congressional authorization for his military campaign in Iraq and Syria. He also said he would seek compromises in the coming months on trade deals, tax changes, infrastructure spending and an immigration overhaul. He offered no details.
“But what I’m not going to do is just wait,” he said of action on immigration. “I think it’s fair to say I’ve shown a lot of patience and tried to work on a bipartisan basis as much as possible, and I’m going to continue to do so. But in the meantime, let’s see what we can do lawfully through executive actions to improve the functioning of the system.”
In Louisville, McConnell signaled that he wanted to find compromise on key issues and make the Senate “work again” by changing the rules in the chamber. He flatly promised that Congress would not shut down the government or default on the national debt in disputes about the nation’s finances.
“When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything,” McConnell told reporters. “We ought to start with the view that maybe there are things we can agree on to make progress for the country.”
But he, too, foreshadowed disagreements ahead, saying, “We will certainly be voting on things as well that we think the administration is not fond of.”
The new political landscape continued to take shape on Wednesday as the Republican majority in the House neared modern records and Republicans closed in on another Senate seat, this one in Alaska. By Wednesday evening, House Republicans had netted 12 more seats, pushing their majority to 246, a level not seen since the Harry S. Truman administration. Several races still to be decided are likely to push that total higher.
Alaskans were still counting thousands of ballots, and the state is not likely to certify a winner until next week at the earliest. But Dan Sullivan, a Republican, led Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, by about 8,000 votes, a small number but an edge of nearly 4 percentage points in a sparsely populated state.
Democrats were able to eke out wins for governor in Colorado and Connecticut, and they vowed to fight to protect the thin lead that Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia held in his surprisingly tight race. But Gov. Patrick J. Quinn of Illinois conceded defeat in a re-election effort that included a visit by the state’s once-favored son, Obama.
As members of Obama’s party sifted through the wreckage, the president was determined to find something positive. He made a surprise appearance at the daily White House staff meeting, telling exhausted aides who had spent the previous night watching losses far more crushing than they had anticipated that he was eager to get to work and squeeze every last moment out of his remaining time in office.
It was a sign of a president now liberated from the political strictures that have bound him over the past year, when Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking him and his policies and Obama felt constrained from defending himself, worried about the potential harm it could do to vulnerable Democratic candidates.
But it also reflected a president unwilling to play what he considers the Washington game of self-flagellation after a political defeat.
Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld the day after the 2006 midterm elections, Obama made no personnel changes, and aides said they did not expect any.
White House officials say that Obama values Denis R. McDonough, his White House chief of staff, who seemed unflustered by the setback and flashed a broad smile in the minutes before the news conference began.
The president, for his part, made a point of showing off his good cheer in defeat – “I’m having a great time,” he said at one point during the news conference – and even of challenging his image as an aloof executive unwilling to engage in the rituals that power compromise in the capital. He said he would like to have a glass of Kentucky bourbon with McConnell.
“If the ways that we’re approaching the Republicans in Congress isn’t working, you know, I’m going to try different things, whether it’s having a drink with Mitch McConnell or letting John Boehner beat me again at golf,” Obama said, referring to the House speaker.