How successful President Barack Obama will be at advancing his agenda over the final two years of his presidency may come down to a conversation over a glass of Kentucky bourbon with the same man who publicly vowed to undermine his presidency at its outset.
Obama joked during a post-midterm Election press conference at the White House Wednesday that he might share a drink with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) after Republicans reclaimed the U.S. Senate in what turned out to be such an embarrassing showing by Democrats Tuesday that some pundits called it a “shellacking.” If that outcome wasn’t bad enough for Obama, Republicans also added more seats to the House of Representatives, which they already firmly controlled.
The president refused to analyze his party’s brutal defeat Tuesday or reflect on his inability to inspire more Democrats to vote. Instead he spoke broadly about the direction the country is headed and expressed his eagerness to sit down with the new Republican majority to examine their agenda before this Congress goes home for the holidays.
He discussed a few of his priorities, most notably taking potential executive actions on immigration reform if Congress refuses to act. He also said he’d reach out to Capitol Hill about funding to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa, passing a budget without the drama that has come to characterize this current Congress, and obtaining a new Authorization to Use Military Force bill specifically for the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. (The Obama Administration has used previous versions of AUMF to justify its war on ISIS, and some have questioned its constitutionality.)
“I look forward to finishing up this Congress’ business, and then working together for the next two years to advance America’s business,” Obama said.
He refused to acknowledge that the country’s emphatic rebuke of Democrats on Election Day was the product of any of his perceived missteps. Rather, as he put it, it was the result of people’s long-festering dissatisfaction with Washington D.C. over the last several years.
“What stands out to me, though, is that the American people sent a message, one that they’ve sent for several elections now,” he said in his opening remarks. “They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours. They want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment.”
Speaking to the Americans who voted Tuesday, he said: “I hear you.” To the estimated two-thirds of the electorate who didn’t feel compelled to come out to the polls, Obama said: “I hear you, too.”
Obama, as is the norm with him, kept his professorial cool despite attempts by reporters to provoke him. He kept things close to the vest, and it’s unclear if his message to voters signaled any potential pivot from his longstanding policies or was his way of acknowledging the whooping his party had gotten and that he was trying to move on.
While many political observers predicted a strong GOP showing Tuesday, the ease in which they seized control of the Senate came as a surprise. Republicans picked up at least seven seats; they only needed six for a majority. They did, however, fall short of the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster.
For much of the campaign, Republicans characterized the election as a referendum on Obama’s agenda, mostly Obamacare, and his handling of crises that emerged over the last year: the threat from ISIS, the spread of Ebola, the influx of young immigrants coming over the Mexican border, and the Veterans Affairs scandal. Once that message gained momentum, aided by Obama’s admission that his policies were indeed on the ballot, Democrats were unable to turn the tide.
“Every election is a moment for reflection,” Obama said.
The president didn’t have much to gloat about, but he did tout the passage of a minimum wage increase in five states.
If there were any other positive gains Tuesday, Obama didn’t mention any.
Obama spent much of the hour-long press conference trying to strike an optimistic tone. He talked glowingly about hard-working Americans and how his job is too important for him to back down now because jobless Americans and college graduates drowning in student loan debt need someone on their side.
“Maybe I’m just getting older,” he said, discussing the impact of the election. “But it doesn’t make me mopey.”