Obama says he's out of touch, but offers no concessions

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2010 

WASHINGTON — After leading his party to the worst midterm drubbing in 72 years, President Barack Obama all but conceded Wednesday that he's lost touch with the American people.

"There is an inherent danger in being in the White House and being in the bubble," Obama said at a White House news conference.

"The responsibilities of this office are so enormous, and so many people are depending on what we do," he added. "In the rush of activity sometimes, we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place."

The president appeared subdued and at times reflective but not outwardly chastened by his Democratic Party's loss of at least 60 seats in the House of Representatives, the worst loss for a president's party since Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats lost 71 seats in 1938.

"It feels bad," Obama said. He vowed to work with the Republicans. But he suggested no change of course, saying that the American people signaled their frustration Tuesday over the economy but brushing aside suggestions that they'd rejected his policies.

"Over the last two years, we've made progress. But clearly too many Americans haven't felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday. And, as president, I take responsibility for that. . . . It underscores for me that I've got to do a better job, just like everybody else in Washington does."

On Capitol Hill, Republicans questioned whether the Democrats learned any lesson from Tuesday's results.

Likely House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the "reasonable way forward" was to cut spending to 2008 levels, something that the president signaled he'll resist.

"The group that should hopefully get the message out of yesterday's elections is our friends on the other side of the aisle," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his party's leader in the Senate, where Republicans gained seats but remain in the minority. "We hope that they will pivot in a different direction."

Known for his steady, even detached, demeanor, Obama said he was the same man with the same agenda and same leadership style he'd always had, but that Americans saw him differently from the way they did before.

"This is a growth process and an evolution," he said. "And the relationship that I've had with the American people is one that built slowly, peaked at this incredible high and then during the course of the last two years, as we've together gone through some very difficult times, has gotten rockier and tougher."

He said voters liked him when he was first campaigning and they got to see him "up close and personal."

But once in the White House, he said, he's been cut off just as other presidents have been. With an eye to history, he likened his predicament to midterm losses suffered by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994, both of whom went on to win re-election.

Mindful of the complaint that he doesn't connect with ordinary people, Obama said he read letters from Americans every evening but that people didn't know about that.

"Those letters that I read every night, some of them just break my heart. ... But nobody's filming me reading those letters," he said.

He said he felt energized and encouraged about the country every time he met people outside the White House, and that he'd get out more.

"There are more things that we can do to make sure that I'm getting out of here," he said. "Getting out of here is good for me, too."

He also said he'd talk more with Republicans.

"What the American people want is for us to mix and match ideas; figure out those areas where we can agree on; move forward on those; disagree without being disagreeable on those areas that we can't agree on," he said.

He said there were a "whole bunch" of areas where he could work with the Republicans, including energy, federal aid to education and a ban on spending "earmarks."

He also said he was willing to negotiate with Republicans on whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that expire Dec. 31. He's proposed making them permanent for singles who make less than $200,000 annually and couples who earn less than $250,000, and letting them expire for those who make more. Republicans want to make them permanent for everyone.

Obama acknowledged that he hasn't changed the way Washington does business as he promised in 2008.

He noted that he engaged in closed-door, backroom deal-making to get his health care bill through Congress, but said it was necessary and the end justified the means.

"It's an ugly mess when it comes to process," he said. "That is something that really affected how people viewed the outcome. That is something that I regret ... but I think the outcome was a good one."

He said he'd talk about repealing one small section of the new law that requires small businesses to report to the Internal Revenue Service. But he dismissed suggestions that he accept repeal of the bill.

"We'd be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years re-litigate arguments that we had over the last two years," he said.

He countered a question about half the voters saying Tuesday that they want the health care law repealed. "Well, it also means one out of two voters think it was the right thing to do."

He resisted calls to cut spending back to 2008, pre-stimulus levels, saying he'll oppose cuts in federal spending on education, energy research to produce "green jobs" and infrastructure improvements.

"In these budget discussions, the key is to be able to distinguish between stuff that isn't adding to our growth, isn't an investment in our future, and those things that are absolutely necessary for us to be able to increase job growth in the future," he said.

He also refused to rule out bypassing Congress and using Environmental Protection Agency rules to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide.

(William Douglas and David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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