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Tough Going: Two Big Obstacles Loom for Obama and McConnell

Health care and immigration could scuttle D.C.'s ability to address even the small policy issues where compromise should be within reach.
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In their back-to-back press conferences yesterday, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader-to-be Mitch McConnell said all the right things after Tuesday’s big Republican wins. They talked about working together, and they mentioned some of the (relatively) low-hanging fruit a Democratic president and a GOP-led Congress could accomplish -- Obama said he was going to push for more funding to combat Ebola and new war authorization to fight ISIS, McConnell talked about approving the Keystone XL pipeline and tax reform. But there are two significant obstacles to even achieving the small stuff: immigration and health care. In his remarks yesterday, Obama made it clear he was going to push forward in making his promised executive actions on immigration. “We're going to take whatever lawful actions that I can take that I believe will improve the functioning of our immigration system,” he said. And while McConnell has previously said the GOP can’t fully repeal the health-care law, he said Republicans will be looking for changes. “There are pieces of it that are deeply, deeply unpopular -- the medical device tax, the individual mandate,” he said. “I think we will be addressing that issue in a variety of different ways.” Yes, there’s an opportunity for divided government to make compromises and get some things done. But it’s also two of the same issues that could scuttle accomplishing even the little stuff.

Obama doesn’t take personal responsibility for the Democrats’ losses

Plenty of Democrats, especially those licking their wounds on Capitol Hill, are scratching their heads why Obama didn’t take more of a responsibility for Democrats’ losses on Tuesday night. After all, he was such a big factor in the GOP’s successful campaigns. “Obama betrayed no trace of doubt or regret about the path upon which he has taken the country. Nor did he indicate that he plans to significantly alter that course,” the Washington Post’s Tumulty writes. In fact, he even seemed to downplay the results, observing how few Americans actually participated. (“To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”) The biggest reason why Obama didn’t take responsibility and fall on his sword, at least the same way he did after the 2010 midterms: The White House doesn’t believe the midterms fundamentally changed Washington. Yes, Republicans will be in charge of the Senate next year, which will certainly complicate any judicial or executive-branch appointments Obama can make in his final two years in office. But beyond that, you’re trading one form of divided government (Democrats controlling the White House and Senate, GOP controlling the House) or another form of divided government (Democrats controlling the White House, GOP now controlling both House and Senate). Still, there are lots of angry Democrats out there, and the finger-pointing and blame-game aren’t going away anytime soon.

McConnell promises to end the Senate gridlock (but doesn’t mention his actions contributing to it)

While Obama is being criticized for not taking responsibility for the Democrats’ losses, McConnell is getting blowback for suggesting that he had nothing to do with the dysfunctional Senate over the past six years. “This gridlock and dysfunction can be ended,” he said in his press conference yesterday. He also said: “The American people have changed the Senate, so I think we have an obligation to change the behavior of the Senate, and to begin to function again.” The biggest thing McConnell is talking about here was outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s practice of not allowing votes and amendments to the Senate floor. So that’s one part of the dysfunction. Another part, however, is the unprecedented GOP filibusters since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, as well as the GOP resistance to allow Obama to fill vacancies on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (which triggered Harry Reid’s “nuclear” option).

The Democratic leadership after the elections – the same ol’, same ol'

After their losses on Tuesday, many Democrats are looking for fresh ideas and a change of direction. But guess who are running for re-election as party leaders: Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer. In other words, there’s not a single fresh face here. And you can throw in Obama (in the White House) and Hillary Clinton (as the Democrats’ apparent 2016 nominee-in-waiting). Compare that with all the new fresh Republican faces who won on Tuesday. As one of us writes, “As the dust settles after their rout of Democrats, the GOP can boast of an influx of dynamic congressional talent that looks younger and more heterogeneous than ever.” Yes, the GOP has its same leaders -- McConnell in the Senate, John Boehner in the House, and neither is a fresh face. But right now, the Democrats have no new voices and new faces, and that’s a big problem for the party. Perhaps Pelosi and Reid are intending to remain as leaders to get through the lame-duck session, and pass the baton off to a younger generation. But right now, it’s the same old, same old for the Democrats.

It’s two days after the midterms, and someone is already going up with a 2016 TV ad

We told you that the 2016 presidential race began the day after Election Day. We just didn’t realize that someone would already start to air a ’16 TV ad. America, meet Dr. Ben Carson. The Washington Times: “Rising conservative star Ben Carson will run a paid video introducing himself to voters on television stations across the country this weekend, getting an early start on a potential 2016 presidential bid in a week when the elections gave a boost to many of his potential rivals.” Wow.

Tuesday’s most decisive demographic: white men

Over the past few cycles, we’ve talked so much about the Latino vote, African Americans, female voters. But the decisive force on Election Night 2014 turned out to be … white men. They made up 37% of the electorate (up from 34% in 2012), and they broke for Republicans 64%-33% (compared with Romney’s 62%-35% margin in ’12). The question for Democrats is if this is simply a midterm phenomenon, or if it’s a longer-term challenge for the Democratic Party -- being able to talk to white male voters.

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