President Obama is already preparing shifts in style and substance to deal with a postelection landscape that will almost certainly be populated with more Republicans.
In an exclusive interview with National Journal on October 19, Obama said that Democrats will need to show an “appropriate sense of humility about what we can accomplish,” and he pledged to “spend more time building consensus.” The president will focus his agenda on a handful of issues that he believes Republicans might be willing to bargain over, particularly education, energy, and infrastructure.
And yet, Obama signaled that he would bend only so much to a Republican Party that appears poised to gain control of one or both chambers of Congress on November 2. The president called GOP plans to divert part of the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts “a nonstarter.” He insisted that Republicans must find a way to pay for extending tax cuts for the wealthy. And he virtually dared the GOP to target health insurance reforms that allow young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans and forbid insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. “It turns out that those provisions are hugely popular,” Obama said, “and they’re the right thing to do.”
The president’s words suggested that if Republicans make the gains that now seem likely, the next two years in Washington could oscillate between compromise on some fronts and heated confrontation on others.
Obama looked fit, trim, and rested during the 45-minute Oval Office chat, although his hair is noticeably graying. The president didn’t hesitate when asked whether he intends to seek reelection. “Obviously, I haven’t made any formal decision,” he said, “but I feel like I’ve got a lot of work left to do.” Told that his answer sounded like a yes, Obama nodded, then flashed a red-carpet smile. “Take it as you will,” he said, laughing. He called “completely unfounded” reports that he might swap Vice President Joe Biden for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the 2012 ticket.
Sitting in a leather chair, beneath a painting of George Washington, with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. over his right shoulder and a bust of Abraham Lincoln over his left, Obama didn’t mince words about the economy, warning, “It’s going to take us time to get out of the hole that we’re in.” But he spoke hopefully about the nation’s resilience, noting that America gets stronger each time it endures “these periods of self-reflection and questioning and political tumult.”
Speaking of tumult, Obama said that regardless of the election outcome, the voters will have spoken: “The most important message that will be sent by the American people is, we want people in Washington to act like grown-ups, cooperate, and start trying to solve problems instead of scoring political points.”
A transcript and further coverage of Obama’s conversation with National Journal Editor-in-Chief Ron Fournier and Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein are available at our newly designed website, NationalJournal.com.
This article appears in the October 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.