There is a tradition of contrition for presidents who have just been rejected in midterm elections: A sober press conference, a public rededication to concerns of voters, a visible attempt at approximating candor.
And so President Obama gathered a couple hundred reporters in the East Room on Wednesday to dutifully take “responsibility” for the election’s outcome, without really admitting any fault. “It feels bad,” he said, before joking about liking Slurpees, complaining about the White House bubble, and diving deep into the Thesaurus for a word to describe his experience last night: “Shellacking.”
This word excited the press corps, which needed an Obama-appropriate verb to set alongside George W. Bush’s self-described “thumpin’” in 2006. But otherwise, it did not matter at all—none of it really. The press conference was a formality, an official checking of the moving-on box. It was more theater for an American public sick of political theater.
And herein lies the problem. Tuesday night was the third consecutive election in which the American public has soundly rejected the Washington ways of politics by tossing out those in power. As before, the only way Americans have of expressing this displeasure is to fire those in charge, who they view as either corrupt or incapable. More often than not, the replacements distinguish themselves by professing an even stronger ideological commitment than the last ones. Then they misinterpret their election as an ideological mandate, forcing more posturing on principal, less agreement across party lines, and the cycle repeats itself.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. And the public frustration builds.
The day after the 2010 landslide election was just another day in Washington, and as such another bad day for the nation’s troubled democracy. Voters who turned out Democrats, voting once again for change, were rewarded with more poses and posturing. Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell held a press conference 90 minutes before Obama to announce that they are happily awaiting a policy pivot from the White House. “I think the group that should hopefully get the message out of yesterday’s elections is our friends on the other side of the aisle,” said McConnell. “And we hope that they will pivot in a different direction, work with us on things.”
This was a bargaining position. Republicans were announcing their new power, and inviting President Obama to join them. It was an echo of the approach Obama had used when he first arrived in the White House, when he announced to the Republican caucus that “elections have consequences.”
In response, Obama announced that he would be willing to work with Republicans if they really wanted to work with him and were willing to negotiate. But they would have to be serious. “As I said before, no person, no party has a monopoly on wisdom,” he said. “And that’s why I’m eager to hear good ideas wherever they come from, whoever proposes them. And that’s why I believe it’s important to have an honest and civil debate about the choices that we face.”
In the first two years of his presidency, these sort of statements from Obama were code. They meant Obama was confident that he had superior policy ideas, and was not interested in debating bigger philosophical issues like whether or not government should mandate health care coverage, or regulate credit card contracts, or put a price on carbon emissions. Then he went ahead and pushed his plans through Congress on the back of his significant Democratic majorities, making exactly as many changes as were necessary for the bare minimum of votes. It remains to be seen if these words now mean something different with Republicans in charge of the House.
Both Obama and Republican leaders now have the same incentives: They want to claim the high ground of reasonable leadership without ceding much ideological terrain. Neither side trusts the other, and it will take months before the country knows whether they can all work together as the American people clearly want. But to reach that point they must first feel each other out, and that means lots more political theater, like we had today, which is not what the American people asked for when they went to the polls.