For well over an hour on Wednesday, President Obama refused to give a roomful of reporters the quote they wanted most: A self-flagellating soundbite, succinctly describing his view on the drubbing Democrats took at the polls on Tuesday.
In 2006, President George W. Bush called the wave that swept the GOP out of congressional power a "thumpin'." Four years later, Obama said Democrats got "shellacked" when Republicans recaptured the House.
On Wednesday, however, the president rhetorically threw up his hands. "Obviously, Republicans had a good night," was all Obama would allow. "And they deserve credit for running good campaigns. Beyond that, I'll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday's results."
To most Republicans and even a good number of Democrats, Obama has been throwing up his hands for much of his second term. Facing a recalcitrant GOP majority in the House, the president's strategy of using his "pen and his phone" to go around Congress was, to his critics, just a euphemism for disengagement. And by voting so demonstrably against Democrats on Tuesday, the electorate seemed to agree.
Obama tried to suggest he got the message. "As president, I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work," he said. But he quickly pivoted to a line that seemed, ever so subtly, to downplay the results. He said he heard the voices both of those voted and of "the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process."
There were times during the press conference when the president appeared as though the loss of the remaining Democratic majority in Congress had lifted a burden from him. Now it is the Republicans' turn to set the terms. They can act, and he can react, rather than the other way around. "I look forward to Republicans putting forward their governing agenda," Obama said, in a line he returned to repeatedly. "I will offer my ideas on areas where I think we can move together to respond to people's economic needs."
He loosened up as time went on, teasing reporters and suggesting he looked forward to getting reacquainted with the incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has been more or less estranged from the president for the duration of his term. "I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell," Obama said, finally offering something of a soundbite to the equally thirsty press.
The president projected neither defiance nor a particular humility in the aftermath of the Republican sweep. He didn't start waving his veto pen, but nor did he signal a rightward shift toward compromise across the board. On some issues, like immigration, there is sure to be confrontation, while on areas like trade and corporate tax reform, there seems to be more common ground. Obama said he was "very open and receptive" to considering changes to his signature healthcare law, but there, too, he drew obvious lines. "Repeal of the law, I won't sign," he said with a chuckle. "Efforts that would take away health care from the 10 million people who now have it and the millions more who are eligible to get it, we're not going to support."
If there was a revelation in Wednesday's day-after press conference, it was that the transformational president who scoffed at the idea of "small ball" during his first six years in office had finally realized that's all he has left. "My number one goal is just to deliver as much as I can for the American people in these last two years," Obama said.
"And wherever I see an opportunity, no matter how large or how small, to make it a little bit easier for a kid to go to college, make it a little more likely that somebody's finding a good paying job, make it a little more likely that somebody has high quality health care, even if I'm not getting a whole loaf, I'm interested in getting whatever legislation we can get passed that adds up to improved prospects of improved future for the American people."
On Friday, Obama will meet Mitch McConnell and the three other congressional leaders at the White House, and together the four of them will start to figure out what change, if any, Tuesday's election will bring.