The White House Grapples with a New Reality

With the boss away, Obama's aides try to make sense of the elections

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Naveen Jora / India Today Group / Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks on the red carpet while inspecting the guard of honor during a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on November 8, 2010.

As President Obama departed the White House on Nov. 5 for a trip to Asia, his top staff was getting whiplashed elsewhere. Across the street, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, senior aides who stayed behind gathered with about 60 progressive leaders to sift through the remains of the midterm elections.

Gerald McEntee, whose group, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, spent nearly $90 million trying to hold Congress for the Democrats, sounded like an anxious parent at a PTA meeting. "We went out on a limb," he said according to someone present. "You need to protect us." Moments later, civil rights leader Al Sharpton offered his view. "I don't think you need to protect us," he said to the White House aides. "We need to protect you."

A week after one of the biggest political wipeouts in nearly 60 years, the West Wing is conducting political triage, trying to figure out what can be saved and what must be discarded. Just two years ago, the Obama team arrived in Washington on a great wave of promise, with control of Congress and what it imagined was a limitless mandate. Now it finds itself trying to pick up the pieces after what Obama aptly called a "shellacking."

The new reality — it is perhaps a measure of this White House's way of looking at things that one aide called it "the new constellation" — means Obama's team has to do several things quickly. Chief of staff Pete Rouse has been working on a schedule of staff changes, a plan that aims, among other things, to bring someone from the business community into the West Wing, where such views have been lacking. Legislative strategist Phil Schiliro has overseen delicate below-the-radar outreach to the new Republican leadership staff. And David Axelrod has been taking advantage of the President's absence to have what he calls "illuminating conversations" with both Democrats and Republicans, though he declined to reveal what those talks produced.

But amid all the efforts is a clear sense among senior staff that the midterms were not just another bad news cycle but a major obstacle that must be surmounted on the road to re-election in 2012. "We have taken pride in taking the long view over the short view, and so you suffer through a lot of battles that you lose in order to win the war," says one senior aide who stayed behind. "This is different in the sense that this is an inflection point."

Just where the curve of history will bend remains unclear, but showdowns loom on almost every front. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have so far staked out a hard line, publicly interpreting the election results as a direct repudiation of Obama's policies. As incoming House Speaker John Boehner put it on Nov. 4, "There seems to be some denial on the part of the President."

Boehner's stated agenda is a rebuke to Obama at every turn: reduce spending to pre-Obama levels, make the government more accountable, repeal and replace health care reform and extend all the Bush tax cuts. Obama, meanwhile, has charted a different course. He wants to end the tax cuts for the richest Americans, increase spending on infrastructure and research, push for education and energy reforms and work to reduce the long-term deficit.

Though weakened, the White House takes comfort in one mantra they hope will bring Republicans to the table: control of the House means the GOP must do more than just say no. "They now have defined responsibility," said Axelrod, perched behind his desk just a few steps from the Oval Office, which had been emptied in Obama's absence to have the floors redone. "I think people will hold them accountable as they hold us accountable." GOP aides, for their part, say they are eager to be held to account and plan to exceed the low bar set by the last Republican Congress, which oversaw a sharp growth in spending.

To prepare for the coming negotiations, which will begin on tax-cut extensions next week, top White House aides have been chewing over which parts of the Obama agenda are disposable and which cannot be bargained away. They caution that Obama is unlikely to consult self-help gurus, as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 midterm losses, or bring in a whole new team of advisers with different ideological stripes. Rather, the West Wing is filled with talk of addressing the economic challenges that the nation faces, devoid of ideological agendas — a message that Obama successfully sold in 2008 to the independents who abandoned him in 2010.

In this approach, they say, are the beginnings of a return to the postpartisan message that is likely to carry the President through his State of the Union address next year. "The truth is, most people in this country are less interested in whether the Democrats or the Republicans win," Axelrod said. "They are most interested in whether America wins in the competition for the future."