Last night as the country was absorbing the midterm election results, the New York Times reported that President Obama was “irritated” about the Democrats’ stunning defeat but that he did not consider the outcome to be a “repudiation” of himself or his administration. In response, some talking heads on the cable news networks suggested that given some time to reflect on events, he would take responsibility for a historic drubbing. They were wrong. When the president came out to face the public at his White House press conference this afternoon, it was clear that not only would he refuse to take blame for his party’s losses but was unchastened by the experience.
Though the press had wondered what adjective he would use to describe a defeat similar in magnitude to a 2010 midterm election that he dubbed a “shellacking,” his speech writers appeared not to have employed a thesaurus. The most he would say was that “Republicans had a good night.” But this unwillingness to acknowledge the magnitude of the outcome was merely the prelude to a lengthy display of presidential arrogance that made it clear he had no intention of taking the voters’ lack of confidence to heart or changing a thing about a presidency that the majority of Americans no longer regard favorably.
Rather than taking a page from Bill Clinton’s book and understanding that he had to adjust his policies and ideas to political reality, Obama seems to think he has no lessons to learn from the voters who broadly rejected the policies that he told us last month were on the ballot yesterday.
Asked several times by members of the press if he was prepared for genuine compromise, all he gave them was the usual boilerplate he’s been employing throughout his presidency about being willing to listen to Republicans if they come up with reasonable ideas. The only problem with that: he believes the only one with reasonable ideas is Barack Obama.
As for the American people, he dismissed their votes as merely a symptom of restlessness and impatience, not a reasoned assessment of his conduct in office. If there was any conclusion to be drawn from their votes, he took it as a slap at both Republicans and Democrats. As far as he is concerned, what the people want is for Congress to “get stuff done.”
It’s true that Republicans in Congress have favorability ratings even lower than the president’s awful poll numbers. But to claim that the voters took an equally dim view of both sides of the partisan divide is to ignore the results. Democrats took a beating around the country as an anti-Obama backlash tarnished their brand and even some highly unpopular Republicans wound up winning races easily that had been thought to be hard slogs. With his party suffering massive losses in the Senate and the House and even in governor’s races where Democrats suffered from their association with the president, it is simply impossible to honestly assert that what happened was a bipartisan anti-incumbent wave. Instead of a “Seinfeld election” about nothing, it was an anti-Obama six-year itch of historic proportions.
Speaking prior to Obama’s press conference, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the president to work with Republicans and accept the olive branch he was offering. But he also warned him that if he ignored the election results and moved ahead with plans to use executive orders to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, he would be immediately “poisoning the well” and making bipartisan deal-making far more difficult.
Yet that is exactly what Obama seems intent on doing. His attitude about immigration was no different than his stance on every other issue where he differs from Congress: It’s my way or the highway. If a Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t want him doing end runs around their constitutional authority, Obama says their only choice is to pass bills he likes. If not, he will act on his own.
This is the main point of his remarks. Though he spoke at times of being willing to have more drinks or rounds of golf with Republicans or members of Congress—something most presidents understand is part of their job but which Obama regards as being somehow beneath his dignity—the president believes such meetings are merely an opportunity for others to listen to him and learn the errors of their ways. In his view, “getting stuff done” means Republicans passing liberal legislation, not him being willing to agree to some of the GOP agenda.
Listening to Obama discuss the need to accommodate or even listen to critics, it’s easy to see he still thinks of himself as the adult in rooms full of petulant children that an unkind fate has forced him to supervise. Rather than treat opponents as equals who must be met halfway, even after six years of failure with Congress, Obama still seems to believe he is, at worst, a constitutional monarch who must suffer the indignity of hobnobbing with commoners even if he would rather die than relinquish his royal prerogatives.
Though the president did the right thing last night by calling election winners from both parties and scheduling a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday, based on today’s performance there is no reason to think the next two years will be any different from those that preceded them when it comes to Obama working with his opponents.
It is one thing to be undaunted by electoral reversals. It is quite another to pretend that such petty annoyances are unworthy of your attention. Though he was the one who reminded us in January 2013 that “elections have consequences” when he was asked about working with defeated Republicans, this is a president who believes that he doesn’t have to heed the verdict of the voters if it goes against him and his allies. That, and not congressional squabbling, is the answer to the question voters ask about why Washington doesn’t function properly.