POTUS Speaks

In Press Conference, Obama Turns Conciliatory—Mostly

He struck a chastened tone and said he’s ready to work with Republicans—except around the one issue on which he dropped a huge bombshell.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

In a crowded press conference in the White House East Room, President Obama sought to put the best face on the new reality he faces in Washington. He said he looks forward to meeting with the congressional leadership on Friday “to chart a new course forward,” and he congratulated the Republicans for “running good campaigns.” He said he would enjoy having a drink of Kentucky bourbon with Kentucky Senator McConnell even as he admitted he didn’t know what the Republican leader’s drink of choice is, and that’s after six years of sparring in a town that runs on schmoozing.

Obama’s message after the beating his party took on Election Day is that whatever it takes, he’s willing to give it a try. “If how we’re approaching Congress isn’t working, if it takes having a drink with Mitch McConnell or letting John Boehner beat me again at golf…Whatever might make a difference in this, I’ll be trying it out until my last day in office.”

But amidst the conciliatory gestures was a bombshell that he dropped in his response to the second question in the hour-long session, which was about immigration reform, and his pledge to take action before the end of the year if Congress didn’t act first. He laid out the history of the legislative effort, a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year that stalled in the House, and described how he told Speaker Boehner he felt “an obligation to do whatever I could with my executive authority.”

He at first promised action by the end of the summer, and then said he would delay any executive action until after the midterm elections. “Before the end of the year I will take whatever lawful action I can take,” he said. “At the same time, I will be reaching out to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and other leaders to get a bill done in the lame duck (session in December) or next year. What I’m not going to do is just wait,” he declared, adding that, “I think it’s fair to say I’ve shown a lot of patience.”

A reporter followed up, quoting McConnell in his press conference less than an hour before, that if Obama used his executive authority, he would “poison the well” with the incoming leaders: “It would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Obama did not back down, saying that for a year he held off not taking any action: “I did everything I could to give him (Speaker Boehner) space and room to get something done.” With the understanding that any bill the Republican-controlled House and Senate pass “will supplant any executive orders I might take,” Obama said he thought any action he took on his own “should be a spur to get something done.”

Except for his doubling down on immigration reform, which is huge, the overall tone was conciliatory, and the president even seemed somewhat relieved that there’s a chance that the gridlock of the last three years might end, and that he and McConnell especially could do business with each other. “He has always been very straightforward with me,” Obama said of his relationship with the GOP leader. “To his credit, he has never made a promise where he couldn’t deliver… He’s given me a realistic assessment of what he can get through his caucus, and what he can’t—so I think we can have a productive relationship.”

Now that the Republicans are in charge, Obama said he’s looking for them to put forward a very specific governing agenda, so they can find areas of agreement. He singled out the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure, an area where in the past Republicans and Democrats have found easy agreement. And he listed three specific items he wants from the lame-duck Congress: more resources for U.S. troops and the medical community to combat the spread of Ebola; a new authorization to use military force against ISIL; and a budget. Congress passed short term legislation in September to keep the government open. they’ve got five weeks to pass a budget, he said, adding that he hopes they will do it in a “bipartisan no drama” way. “We don’t want to inject any new uncertainty” into the economy, he said.

The economy by almost every measure is doing better than when Obama first took office, a point that he raised a couple of times in the press conference. Obviously frustrated that he doesn’t get credit for halving the deficit or lowering the unemployment rate, or for the more affordable gas prices Americans are seeing at the pump, he said he understands that people aren’t feeling the benefits in their daily lives, and that they’re exposed to a slew of bad news coming over their television screens.

The session had an elegiac quality to it, a president knowing that time is running out, and that he’s got to find a way to make the best of it. “I’m going to squeeze every last little bit of opportunity to make this world a better place over the next two years,” he said. “If you look at history, the last two years, all kinds of things happen. One thing I’m confident of I’m going to be busy for the next two years.”

Elections are a moment for reflection, and it’s obvious that Obama is looking to history for solace, and Democrats did face an exceptionally poor map in these midterms. In charting his course for the next two years, Obama has made at least two decisions: to fulfill the promise he made on immigration reform, and to take steps to get out of his comfort zone to engage with Congress. Not only the opposition party has felt neglected, but Democrats too feel that he has ignored them.

A reporter pressed him to describe in a word the impact of Tuesday night’s results. In 2010, when Democrats lost the House, Obama called it a “shellacking.” This time he decline to offer an adjective, said he would leave it to others to go through the tea leaves of the election. “One of the nice things about being in the sixth year of a presidency, you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs and you’ve gotten more than your share of attention,” he said. Asked if it stung that Democrats didn’t want him on the campaign trail, he shrugged it off, saying “I’ve been in the limelight when requests for my appearances were endless. It all kind of evens out.”

He closed with a peroration on how optimistic he feel s about the country, how an increase in the minimum wage, one of his core proposals, passed in five states, including Republican-controlled ones, and how Americans troops are making progress fighting Ebola. “Democracy is messy, there are times you’re disappointed,” he said. “It doesn’t make me mopey, it energizes me.” A president bowed but not beaten, Obama sounded oddly relieved at the turn of events, as though the fever his reelection had failed to break may have subsided.