The Post-Midterm Obama

After CNN and MSNBC used the terms "referendum" and "repudiate" a combined 780* times last Tuesday and Wednesday as the Democratic Party got slugged around the electoral map like "Hurricane" Peter McNeely, President Obama has seemingly absorbed all this and recalibrated.

Is he any different now, from how he was before November 2?

We won't know until we see him in action, responding to GOP requests and offering his own policy solutions. Will he extend part or all of the Bush tax cuts for people who make more than $250,000 per year? If so, how long will he extend them for? Will he sign any of the budget-cutting measures proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan?

So far, we don't really know anything about specifics. "Compromise," at this point, is an idea.

What we do know is what President Obama has said--how he's reacted to the midterm defeats. Obama held a press conference the day after the election, and he sat down for a "60 Minutes" interview that aired on Sunday night. While the president appeared contemplative, especially in his press conference, he also stuck to some discernable talking points.

As we try to suss it out, here are some early metrics for how Obama has, or has not, shifted his presidential identity since the midterms:

  • He says it's the economy, not his policies. Obama has been asked numerous times if the American voting public rejected his policies when they went to the polls. Meaning the stimulus, the government seizure of GM, health care reform, and financial regulatory reform. And he generally assesses the Democratic Party's problems as coming from somewhere else: the economy. "If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices," Obama said during his post-election press conference.
  • He says he failed to change the culture of Washington. We haven't heard much from Obama about changing the way business gets done in Washington since the 2008 elections, but that's why a lot of people liked him to begin with. His "post-partisanship." Clearly, the culture hasn't changed, and Obama passed both the $787 billion stimulus and health care reform with a total of one GOP vote in the House, as Republicans made it their mission to stonewall him as best they could. Regardless of who's at fault for the culture of partisanship, Obama has rededicated himself at least to talking about a cultural shift. "We were in such a rush to get things done that we didn't change how things get done," the president said during his press conference.
  • He's no longer in campaign mode. For much of his time in office, Obama has engaged in rhetorical battle, seeking to publicly bludgeon the GOP for not sitting down with him in good faith, for opposing policies like campaign finance reform, and for wanting to take America "back to the failed policies" of his predecessor, as the White House and countless Democratic surrogates are fond of saying. He's given us none of that since the midterms, talking instead about how he'll sit down with Republicans and work with them. The election means that "no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges," he said on Wednesday. Keep in mind: Obama sat down with Republicans during the health care debate, too.
  • He blames communication. The president has said it before, and he's saying it again: He didn't push the stimulus, take over GM, and administer the Bush-era financial bailout because he loves expanding government. But the problem, he seemed to suggest, is that he didn't communicate his intentions well enough as these things were happening. "What I didn't effectively, I think, drive home, because we were in such a rush to get this stuff done, is that we were taking these steps not because of some theory that we wanted to expand government. It was because we had an emergency situation and we wanted to make sure the economy didn't go off a cliff," he said on "60 Minutes." Given that many voices on the left are blaming Obama's communication skills, perhaps it's hard for the president not to. But, on its own, this view of public opinion does not signify a change in the president.
  • He acknowledges fears of government expansion. This struck me more than anything else Obama said in the days following the election, and he said it during both his press conference and interview: that he understands people felt like he was expanding government at a rapid pace. "You got intervention in the banks. You've got the auto bailout. You've got a stimulus package. Each one with a lot of zeroes behind it. And people looked at that and they said, 'Boy, this feels as if there's a huge expansion of government,'" he said on "60 Minutes." This notion is distinctive of the president's critics in the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement, and it has consistently been ignored or degraded by Democrats over the past year and a half, partly because of how apocalypticallly Obama's critics have phrased their complaints. The word "socialism" has gotten thrown by Republicans in panicked tones, and Tea Partiers have talked about Obama taking away personal freedoms with government spending...neither idea has seemed to resonate with the Democratic Party or the White House as anything other than crazed ramblings. But Obama has, since the midterms, acknowledged how his "emergency measures," combined with a failure of communication, led people to sense an expanding and encroaching federal government.
  • He's taken a break from bashing Bush. Obama has spent the past year noting that President Bush's tenure has given him an enormous hole to dig the country out of. Obama has never been one to directly shunt responsibility for the economy, but the message one got through his political rhetoric was unmistakable: This mess is Bush's fault. In his post-election press conference, President Obama declined to make that point again. "Clearly, too many Americans haven't felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday. And as President, I take responsibility for that," he said. No follow-up line about his predecessor. Given that Bush-bashing has been a cornerstone of his economic rhetoric, it was notable that he neglected to bring Bush up at all the day after the election. Was this a departure, or just a brief post-election respite from Bush-talk?

*Number not based in fact