In a roughly hour-long press conference during which he grew more and more reflective and conciliatory, President Obama acknowledged that his party had taken a "shellacking" in Tuesday's election, and he signaled he understood that voters had not seen enough of the change and progress he promised.
The president's tone was markedly differently from the partisan one he struck while criss-crossing the country in the final weeks of campaign 2010. He told reporters gathered in the East Room that the "overwhelming message" he heard from voters was that they want both parties to "work harder to arrive at consensus" and to focus completely on jobs and the economy.
"There's no doubt that as I reflect on the results of the election, it underscores for me that I've got to do a better job, just like everybody else in Washington does," he said.
He said he took "direct responsibility" for the fact that the country had not made enough progress to create jobs and to allow the middle class to feel secure.
"It feels bad," Obama said of the loss of so many Democratic seats. "There is a -- not only sadness about seeing them go, but there's also a lot of questioning on my part in terms of, "Could I have done something differently, or done something more so that those folks would still be here?" It's hard and -- and I take responsibility for it in a lot of ways."
The change in tone was a reflection of big losses in the election last night, the most expensive midterm in history. In the largest midterm gain by one party since World War II, Republicans netted some 60 House seats. Many of the GOP candidates who won ran on proposals to cut spending and reduce the deficit.
Obama said he hoped to find common ground with Republicans in areas like energy and education, and he called on Congress to extend the middle-class tax cuts set to expire at year end, continue research and development tax breaks for businesses, and extend unemployment insurance to help sustain the country's economic recovery.
He also indicated a greater willingness to work the Republicans on some key issues than he has in recent weeks. Despite months of arguing against extending the so-called Bush tax cuts for individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000 on the grounds that the $700 billion price tag for doing so was too high, Obama seemed to leave the door open to compromising on the matter.
"My goal is to sit down with Speaker-elect Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Harry and Nancy some time in the next few weeks and see where we can move forward," he began. "How that negotiation works itself out, I think it's too early to say. But, you know, this is going to be one of my top priorities. And my hope is that given we all have an interest in growing the economy and encouraging job growth, that we're not going to play brinkmanship but instead we're going to act responsibly."
When it comes to the Republican threat to try to repeal the health-care overhaul, which the president spent more than a year and a large amount of political capital to get passed, Obama said it would be misreading the election to think that Americans want Congress to spend next two years "re-litigating" these issues. But he added that he was willing to work with Republicans to change specific parts of the bill, like a provision that requires businesses to report payments to vendors over $600.
And in a nod to history, Obama pointed out that he is not the first president to face steep midterm losses. "I think it's important to point out ... a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions," he said, adding that the two leaders had both faced "a whole range of factors that made people concerned that maybe the party in power wasn't listening to them."
Perhaps the most remarkable portion of the news conference came when the president spent several minutes reflecting on how 'removed' he felt from the American people working in the White House and the challenge he faced in connecting with voters.
"This is something that I think every president needs to go through, because ... the responsibilities of this office are so enormous and so many people are depending on what we do, and in the rush of activity sometimes we lose track of -- you know, the -- the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place."
DADT and the 'change' mandate
The president said he must work harder to set the proper tone with the business community. On "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- which he said should not be a partisan issue -- Obama said the upcoming release of a review on the policy would "give us time to act in -- potentially during the lame-duck session to change this policy."
The president also addressed an issue that came up last week in his "Daily Show" interview with Jon Stewart, who challenged him about not having done enough to change the way business was done in Washington, one of his main campaign themes.
"We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done, and I think that frustrated people," the president said.