What they got was a realist, a man who, like him or not, seems more uncomfortable than ever pandering to voters or telling them what they want to hear, who has always believed that simply explaining was enough, who has almost no patience for political theater and little interest in using his office for pure optical purposes. Despite his rock-star origins, he's no showman. And at times, he comes off as almost determinedly tone-deaf.
Think about last week, when Obama invited doctors and nurses who had treated the Ebola virus to an event to the White House. The outbreak had become a key issue on campaign trails across the United States. There was almost no political upside to an event dedicated to minimizing the risk of transmission, but the president did it anyway, determined to be the Explainer in Chief and to try to dissipate the cloud of fear enveloping the country.
Or when he argued that his policies were indeed on the ballot for these midterms, despite a legion of at-risk Democrats hollering it wasn't so. Or how his White House maintained that should the Senate change hands, no senior aides would pay a price even if it meant that this administration had now lost both houses of Congress during its tenure. Such a move, the White House argued, would be symbolic and meaningless. It's fairly clear that Obama doesn't see Tuesday's setbacks as a rebuke. "This is possibly the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower," Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. (But even in the blue-state governor's races in which he campaigned, Obama fared terribly.)
Often, too, the president and his staff have spoken in the language of limitation. Obama doesn't overpromise or offer feel-good reassurance. Hence, the repeated assertions that the U.S. can ultimately do little to "destroy and degrade" the forces of ISIS in Iraq and Syria without help. And how Russia can still be a strategic partner on some issues even as Obama has tried to talk tough to Vladimir Putin. Since his reelection, his foreign-policy ratings have tumbled, even as Americans have largely favored his approach in both instances.
But nowhere has Obama employed the half-full/half-empty approach more than with the economy. The White House has resisted spiking the football on the recovery even as Wall Street roared to life and unemployment slid under 6 percent. There were good reasons: Polls show that reams of voters remain skittish about their personal situations. But the president, to the chagrin of some progressives, has also resisted sending ambitious economic programs to Congress to force a confrontation—because he knows they face no chance of passage. Politically, it left the impression that this is administration that is eternally halfway-done with the job it's doing—and left Democrats without much of a story to tell this election.