NEW: Obama spoke for the first time since the election
GOP will hold at least 52 Senate seats, according to CNN projections
President Barack Obama isn’t ceding ground on his most controversial policies despite an election that delivered a stinging rebuke to him and his party on Capitol Hill.
During a roughly 90-minute press conference Wednesday, Obama gave no sign that he’d accept major revisions to his signature health care law, change his mind on bypassing Congress on immigration or consent to Republican demands on energy and the environment.
Indeed, the President didn’t do much to suggest that his White House would work differently after Republicans won at least 52 seats in the Senate and their biggest majority in the House since World War II.
While Obama made clear he had no desire to reshape his agenda, he did acknowledge that voters dealt his party a dramatic defeat on Tuesday.
“To those of you who voted, I hear you,” Obama said in his first public remarks since the election. To those who didn’t vote, “I hear you too.”
Obama avoided language like “shellacking,” which he used to describe losses Democrats experienced in 2010. The closest he got to accepting blame for the campaign came when he said every election result offers a “moment for reflection.”
“There is no doubt the Republicans had a good night,” Obama said.
The success of Obama’s final years in office could rely on Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is in line to become the next Senate majority leader. The two men have had an antagonistic relationship – McConnell once vowed to make Obama a one-term president – but have occasionally found common ground. McConnell worked closely with the administration, though mostly through Vice President Joe Biden, to broker a deal in 2012 to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Obama reached out to McConnell on Wednesday and sounded an optimistic tone during the press conference.
“You know, actually, I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell,” Obama said.
Still, the distance between Obama and McConnell quickly became clear. They both identified tax reform as a potential area of compromise. But Obama described that effort by encouraging lawmakers to lower tax rates by closing loopholes – a strategy McConnell and other Republicans have rejected for years.
During a press conference in Kentucky, McConnell urged Obama to follow Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who built domestic legacies despite often having to deal with a Congress controlled by opposing parties.
McConnell said those two presidents are “good examples of accepting the government you have rather than fantasizing about the government you wished you had.”
“The president has really got a choice,” he said. “There certainly are going to be areas of disagreement.”
It will take time to see whether McConnell has running room from conservatives within his party who may prefer a strategy of confrontation. Obama, meanwhile, must consider how he can safeguard his own political legacy of health care reform, a Wall Street overhaul and an uneven economic recovery.
But Obama insisted that the bitter polarization that has plagued his crisis-scarred presidency and turned his hair gray doesn’t get him down.
“It doesn’t make me mopey,” he said. “It energizes me, because it means that this democracy’s working.”