President Barack Obama held his first post-midterm elections press conference in the White House East Room on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. The president said he heard voters after his Democratic Party’s historic losses, but with his defiant tone, rhetoric and promise to use his veto power, and to continue his year of executive actions particularly with immigration reform, Obama is still marching to his own tune and in denial. Just barely an hour before Republican and the incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke at his own press conference at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he promised government would work, and saying would he would compromise with the president on a “trust but verify” basis, but unilateral actions would “poison the well.”
Tuesday night, Nov. 4 the Republicans gained control of the Senate winning 52 seats, seven more to the Democrats’ 42 seats. The GOP also made gains in the House of Representatives early 246 seats, 14 more than they had, while the Democrats won only 189 seats. While the Republicans won big on the state level as well, winning four more governorships for a total of with 31 governorships to the Democrats 16 victories.
McConnell speaking at his press conference promised that the Republican Congress would get things done; “We’re going to function. We’re going to pass legislation.” McConnell also pledged that there would no GOP revolts against the president as in the past, “Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt.” McConnell analyzed the vote as meaning voters want compromise, conciliation and bipartisanship; “The American people have spoken. They’ve given us divided government. When the American people chose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.” The upcoming majority leader seemed happy but humble about his new role, and the Republicans’ control of Congress.
President Obama was far from humble in his press conference remarks in fact he acted defiant, righteous, indignant and seemed oblivious to the fact that his party loss big time the night before, essentially leaving him as lame duck for his last two years of his presidency, especially if he keeps up his argumentative tone with the GOP. His acknowledgement of the GOP major electoral gains was brief, and made no mention of the Democrats losses, saying; “Obviously, Republicans had a good night and they deserve credit for running good campaigns.” Still Obama insolent, expressed; “What stands out to me though, is the American people sent a message. 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.”
Obama also sent an assertive message out to the GOP, he is still the president and the ultimate decision maker, and although the GOP won, more Americans who could vote did not and he tried to put forth that that is significant; “All of us, in both parties, have a responsibility to address that sentiment. Still, as President, I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work. So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
The president was offensive for the most part, but he did say he would reach out to Republican leadership in both the Senate and House to work with them, and would be conciliatory and make concessions, but that he has his limits. The president and the GOP have common ground when it comes to legislation for infrastructure, exports and early childhood education. However, healthcare will likely remain a sticky issue between the president and Congress. When it comes to healthcare Obama noted, “there are certainly some lines I’m going to draw. Repeal of the law I won’t sign.” President Obama promised he will use his veto power and will continue taking executive actions; “Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign. I’m pretty sure I’ll take some actions that some in Congress will not like.”
President Obama was clear the election results would not alter his agenda and policy focus; “The American people overwhelmingly believe that this town doesn’t work well … and as president, they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly. I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody. They want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through the gridlock, and get some of these things done. So the most important thing that I can do is get stuff done.”
President Obama conceded he would like to compromise “But we can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement among the American people.” The president’s definition of compromise has also been limited mostly to everyone agreeing his view. Still he expressed that he was open to a GOP agenda and challenged them to create one; “So I look forward to Republicans putting forward their governing agenda. I will offer my ideas on areas where I think we can move together to respond to people’s economic needs.”
One area he has no plans to compromise about is if Congress does not act before the end of the year, and he means passing the 2013 bipartisan passed Senate bill, he will take executive action, particularly to stop deportations. Obama promised; “Before the end of the year, we’re going to take whatever lawful actions that I can take, that I believe will improve the functioning of our immigration system, (and) that will allow us to surge additional resources to the border, where I think the vast majority of Americans have the deepest concern.” The president’s limited definition of conciliation was a threat to the GOP; “You send me a bill that I can sign, and those actions go away. I’m eager to see what they have to offer. But what I’m not going to do is just wait.”
Anticipating President Obama’s reliance and promise to take actions executive on immigration reform, McConnell warned the president against doing so at his own press conference, saying it is against the American voter’s message and will “poison” any bipartisanship and conciliation between the president and Congress. McConnell expressed, “I think the president choosing to do a lot of things unilaterally on immigration would be a big mistake. It’s an issue that most of my members want to address legislatively. And it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say if you guys don’t do what I want, I’m going to do it on my own. … I hope he won’t do that, because I do think it poisons the well for the opportunity to address a very important domestic issue.”
In general, President Obama acted as if he was taking the election results in stride, saying; “There are times you’re a politician and you’re disappointed with election results… it doesn’t make me mopey, it energizes me, because it means democracy is working.” The president seemed detached and did not realize that the vote said a lot about what the American public felt about him, his policies and Democratic agenda. The GOP victories confirmed what the negative polls with the low presidential approval ratings have been telling Obama for months, they are dissatisfied with the direction of his presidency.
Somehow, President Obama does not grasp his party was trounced in the elections the night before. His only response to the vote against him was; “what is also true is I am the president of the United States, and I think, understandably, people are going to ask for greater accountability and more responsibility from me than from anyone else in this town. Appropriately so, and I welcome that.” He is essentially standing alone against the GOP, and his ever-combative tone and attitude will only isolate him and ensure he is a lame duck these next two years. CNN has noted that President Obama is poised to match Harry S. Truman’s record from 1950 for the most Congressional seats lost by a president and his party during his terms in office, not a an easy feat considering there have been many unpopular presidents since then, only Bill Clinton in the 1990s comes close on that record. Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus was surprised by Obama’s comments, remarking that the president “didn’t get the message of yesterday’s election. Is he detached or in denial?”
The president has already started on a bad foot challenging the Republicans over executive actions, not phoning McConnell in time on election night to congratulate him on his victory and the GOP’s senate majority. Still President Obama called McConnell Wednesday morning, and also invited him and present Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for a White House meeting on Friday to discuss the more immediate lame duck session. The president also invited McConnell for a drink when responding to a question at his press conference, saying; “You know, actually, I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell. I don’t know what his preferred drink is, but, you know, my interactions with Mitch McConnell, he – you know, he has always been very straightforward with me.”
Ultimately, President Obama concluded; “I maybe have a naive confidence that if we continue to focus on the American people and not on our own ambitions or image … at the end of the day, I’m going to look back and be able to say, the American people are better off than they were before I was president.” Obama used the famous quote Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-89) used in the 1980 presidential debate, “are you better off than four years ago?” President Obama remains confident Americans will feel that way about his eight years in office, his presidency, policies and legacy.
Remarks by President Barack Obama in a Press Conference, Nov. 5, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.