WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama grappled Wednesday with the fallout from the stunning Republican Senate election in Massachusetts, a stinging loss that could drive him to stay the course in tough times — a la Ronald Reagan in 1982 — or tack toward the center and work more with the Republicans — as Bill Clinton did after 1994.
Whichever course he pursues heading into his second year as president — Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of his inauguration — the loss of a Democratic-held Senate seat in Massachusetts, and with it his party's 60-vote super-majority in the Senate, means he has to adapt his governing style if he wants to get things done.
"Successful presidents are able to adjust," said William Galston, a former aide in the Clinton White House. "But you can't adjust unless you acknowledge that you've made some mistakes. The first question about this very self-confident president is whether he'll be able to acknowledge mistakes. Not just verbally, but in his mind and his heart."
Obama and his top aides insisted Wednesday that he would change. But it may be a change only in tactics, not substance.
Senior aides said that Obama still would push to expand health care, his top domestic priority, as well as the rest of his agenda. They said that the White House now would have to rethink how it gets priorities through Congress.
"We ... have to take into account what voters were saying yesterday and what we've heard from folks around the country," senior adviser David Axelrod said on MSNBC. "We will take that into account and then we'll decide how to move forward."
Obama said Wednesday that he didn't take the evident voter anger in Massachusetts as a verdict on him or his agenda.
"People are angry, they are frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years," Obama told ABC News.
At least one poll of Massachusetts voters painted a different picture, however.
Obama's healthcare proposal was by far the dominant issue on voters' minds in Massachusetts, according to an election night survey by respected Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. His poll found 48 percent of voters saying that health care was the top issue that decided their vote and that Brown won because he firmly opposed Obama's plan. No other issue came close.
Democrats have now lost three straight elections since November — governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and now the Senate seat in Massachusetts. Obama won all three states in 2008. How Obama reacts to the reversal will say a lot about what he accomplishes for the remainder of his term — and whether he wins a second one.
Several centrist Democrats and Republicans are urging him to move away from the liberal Democratic congressional leadership and toward the political center, much as Clinton did after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994.
"The loss in Massachusetts should serve as a wake-up call to the wing of the Democratic Party that wants the federal government to overreach and overspend," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a statement. "We need to get back to the basics. Senate Democrats must use this setback to increase our efforts to find bipartisan, fiscally responsible solutions that make sense to Americans of all walks of life. "
Former Commerce Secretary and prominent Chicago Democrat William Daley last month said the party was inviting defeat if it continues along a liberal, big government path. "Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course," Daley wrote, "or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms, but in many elections to come."
When Reagan found himself in a similar situation at the start of his second year — with a deep recession and high unemployment — he told Congress in his Feb. 8, 1982 budget message to trust that his policies would eventually work and to "stay the course."
To be sure, Reagan did agree to some tax increases in 1982 that partly offset his big tax cuts of the year before. Still, Reagan managed to keep the core of his program that he'd enacted his first year — deep cuts in the top marginal income tax rates — in place.
"We had put in place all the policies we wanted," recalled Vin Weber, who was a Republican member of Congress at the time. "It wasn't like health care, where it hadn't happened. We had passed the tax cut."
For Obama, the onset of political woes before he has put his key domestic agenda in place robs him of the luxury of staying the course and waiting for the program to show results.
One alternative, Weber said, would be to try to pass parts of the health care proposal piece by piece, such as the section that would force insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions.
Another, he said, would be to try to compromise with Republicans. ""If he really wanted to compromise, he'd put Republicans in a difficult position," he said.
Galston suggested that Obama needs to settle the health care debate one way or another, then focus on jobs.
"He's got to decide what to do about health care fast. This fish sitting on the counter will not smell any better if it sits there longer," he said.
"Then he's got to use his State of the Union speech next week to reset the administration agenda for year two, and make it very clear that he's gotten the message that year two will be all about the economy."
Finally, Obama also may try to bypass Congress altogether on some issues, turning more to executive orders to change policy.
"There are a number of ways to advance the ideals and interests of the American people," Obama said Wednesday. "Often it's done through Congress. But it can also be done through what's called a presidential memorandum."
Obama was speaking about a new policy blocking government contracts from tax delinquent companies. But he also is using executive powers in other areas as well, such as Environmental Protection Agency regulations on auto emissions. And he could use them on the economy and health care, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian.
While presidential candidates, Obama included, tend to campaign against excessive use of executive power, Zelizer said, the temptation to use those powers once in office is powerful, especially after losing a key vote in the Senate.
"When they're in power, they start doing the same tactic," he said. "It's the attempt to get what you can't get through Congress."
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