President Obama speaks to White House reporters Wednesday afternoon., Jewel Samad / Getty Images
It’s not something he’d wish on future presidents, but taking a “shellacking,” as President Obama called it, is part of the process of being the chief executive. “It feels bad,” Obama said to an East Room filled with reporters, referring to substantial losses for Democrats in yesterday’s midterm elections. During several moments he extended a long gaze down, took a deep breath, and made humble jokes about taking his lumps.
The election wasn’t about Obama specifically—at least to the extent that his name wasn’t on any ballots—but his policies were the topic of vigorous campaigning within both parties. And the votes counted Tuesday night left fewer of Obama’s men and women on the battlefield and resulted in sweeping gains for the other team.
It’s not often that Obama, the junior legislator who got promoted to president, has appeared unprepared, or genuinely surprised by his duties. But his newness to public office shone on Wednesday through what is his usual tough and grandiose rhetoric. “This is a growth process and an evolution,” he said, seemingly referring to the ebb and flow of the country moving forward. But he also may have been speaking personally. For the first time in his fast-ascending political career, he was handed almost the worst kind of setback a president can face (short of losing reelection)—a stinging rebuke of much of his party and, polling data have shown, some of his policies.
It’s not a question of whether Obama can recover; he’ll have to. A newly strengthened Republican caucus will be eager to tout new accomplishments, and they’ll need Obama’s signature for anything lasting. The morning-after speeches were all about working together for the American people, and making Washington work better. Both parties' principals emphasized the need to find common ground and areas where compromise is possible. An optimistic message to be sure, but judging from the hard-fought battles of the past two years, there aren’t many such areas.
But just as any job includes a learning curve, Obama recognized that his does, too. “I’ve done a lot of reflecting.” From here out, he said, “We’ve got to do a better job.”