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A Conciliatory President Confronts a New Washington, New Electoral Map for 2012

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Barack Obama called Tuesday’s results a “shellacking” for his party and pledged to work harder to find common ground with Republicans, even as he acknowledged that 2012 is looming for both sides.

Barely a day after the midterm elections dealt a devastating blow to Democrats, President Barack Obama is already signaling that he has moved to the “what’s next” stage of his presidency — namely, to begin preparing for his 2012 re-election campaign.

In his first appearance since Republicans picked up a net gain of more than 60 seats in the House and at least six in the Senate, Obama acknowledged Wednesday the “shellacking” his party took. He adopted a tone of reflection just hours after making a congratulatory call to the likely incoming Speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Obama said during a White House news conference that he will heed the message he heard loud and clear in the elections: that progress made by his administration isn’t being felt by Americans worried about jobs and the economy, and voters are tired of bickering.

“I’m doing a whole lot of reflecting,” he said. “We were in such a hurry to get things done, we didn’t change how things got done, and I think that frustrated people.”

Add to those reflections a new reliance on such words as “consensus” and “together” and a vow to make bipartisanship work this time around, and suddenly there’s a new White House agenda framed around what people will be looking for in the next presidential race.

Obama said he knows the GOP won’t agree with him on everything; he warned incoming leaders that the election result proves voters aren’t interested in spending “the next two years refighting the political battles of the last two.” That’s a request unlikely to be greeted warmly as GOP leaders have already signaled that stripping down the president’s health care law is a top priority.

But even as Obama pressed for collaboration with GOP leaders, he was already looking ahead.

“We just had a tough election. We will have another in 2012. I’m not so naive as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then,” he said.

The president said he will focus on the issues that will have the biggest effect on Americans’ jobs: reducing the deficit, promoting clean energy, boosting education and investments in technology — all issues that will play well in 2012.

But Obama faces a new set of obstacles. In 2008, his presidential campaign drove a shift of the electoral map, putting into play some deep red states that hadn’t embraced the Democratic Party in four decades. Now, the map has shifted again as Republicans reclaimed their standing in traditional presidential battlegrounds and in some of Obama’s prize pickups, such as Virginia and Indiana.

But even bigger implications came as Republicans swept critical gubernatorial races in Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida, all battlegrounds which Obama carried when he ran for president. Plus, the GOP now holds the keys to redistricting.

“Last night definitely suggested that 2008 map is changing,” RNC spokesman Doug Heye said. Two years ago, states such as North Carolina were caught off guard by the strength of Obama’s appeal and his organization, Heye said. In other states, voters have simply shifted away from the Democratic Party, he said.

In Florida, Republicans unseated four incumbent Democrats along with the win in the gubernatorial race. In Ohio, a critical battleground with 20 electoral votes, five House Democrats went down and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) lost re-election.

The president spoke Wednesday with volunteers from his Organizing for America coalition. “It might get tougher in the days ahead,” Obama said on the conference call. “We’ve got to keep on working hard ... sometimes, I know, that’s exhausting.”

But Obama tried to sound encouraging and even signaled confidence he’ll be re-elected, telling supporters that he’ll face more pitfalls “over the next two years and the next six years,” but that he’s proud they will keep standing with him.

Obama maintains that his agenda will include potential areas of compromise. Republicans have insisted they won’t allow any of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire as scheduled on New Year’s Eve, while Obama says they are too costly and should expire for the top 2 percent of taxpayers. Given the GOP’s new sizable majority, this is an area where it’s more likely to end in a handshake than a standoff.

During the news conference, Obama was almost deferential to Boehner, prematurely bestowing the “Speaker-elect” title on the Ohio Republican and saying he can “work together” with probable Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on the issue of limiting budgetary earmarks.

The president also hit on all the points irking voters, saying he wants to curb Washington squabbling, address swelling debt and listen more to everyday people about their worries.

“I won’t pretend that we will be able to bridge every difference or solve every disagreement,” he said. “There’s a reason we have two parties in this country, and both Democrats and Republicans have certain beliefs and certain principles that each feels cannot be compromised.”

Gone was the fiery Obama who stumped for dozens of candidates this year, rebuking of Republican leadership during the Bush administration. The first mention of Bush came from a reporter, and Obama did not dwell on the economic mess he’d inherited.

Asked how he feels about his party taking so many losses, the president said he takes responsibility for the dozens of Democrats falling on election night, all of whom he spoke with that night.

“There is 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?’” he said.

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