"I hear you,” President Barack Obama said to the voters who gave Democrats an electoral drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
But their message went in one presidential ear and out the other.
The Republican victory was a political earthquake, giving the opposition party control of the Senate, expanding its House majority to a level not seen in generations and burying Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Yet when Obama fielded questions for an hour Wednesday afternoon, he spoke as if Tuesday had been but a minor irritation.
Obama declared that he would continue with plans for executive orders to expand legal status to undocumented immigrants – even though, minutes before Obama’s news conference, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that would be “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
About the closest Obama got to a concession was offering to have some Kentucky bourbon with McConnell (he had once joked about how unpleasant a drink with McConnell would be) and “letting (House Speaker) John Boehner beat me again at golf.”
President George W. Bush was rarely one to admit error, but on the day after the midterm “thumpin’” Republicans received eight years ago, he responded dramatically. Bush announced the ouster of defense chief Donald Rumsfeld and set in motion a new Iraq policy. He also offered a frank acknowledgment that everything had changed: “The election’s over and the Democrats won, and now we’re going to work together for two years to accomplish big objectives for the country.”
Obama was blase by comparison. “Obviously, Republicans had a good night,” he said, but “beyond that, I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.”
It’s true that voters are disgusted with both parties, but they were particularly unhappy with Obama. Indeed, Tuesday’s returns did not trouble Obama greatly, he said. “There are times when you’re a politician and you’re disappointed with election results,” he said. “But maybe I’m just getting older. I don’t know. It doesn’t make me mopey.”
Reporters tried, with little success, to elicit any hint of a new direction from Obama. Fox News’ Ed Henry pointed out the obvious: “I haven’t heard you say a specific thing during this news conference that you would do differently.”
Obama restated his passive stance, saying it would be “premature” to talk about changing personnel or policies. “What I’d like to do is to hear from the Republicans.”
NPR’s Scott Horsley gave a last try, asking Obama whether he saw “some shortcoming on your part” because Democratic policies fared better than Democratic candidates. Obama replied in the conditional: “If the way we are talking about issues isn’t working, then I’m going to try some different things.”
But after Tuesday, it’s no longer a question of “if.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.