Obama's Midterm Takeaway: Same Policies, Better Messaging

He's got a better mousetrap, but he can't figure out quite how to sell it, he says.
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is still not doubting the virtue of any of his policies as a result of his party's beating in last week's midterms. He's trying to rethink his messaging on everything from immigration to sending more troops to Iraq and negotiations with Iran. So far, though, the sales job isn't drastically different.

He told CBS' Bob Schieffer in an interview for "Face the Nation" on Sunday that "there is a failure of politics there that we've got to improve on" among his team and Democrats. "It's not enough just to build a better mousetrap. People don't automatically come beating to your door. We've got to sell it."

Sounding sort of half-hearted about it, Obama accepted responsibility for the election results, borrowing from Harry Truman to say "the buck stops with me." He refrained from taking a jab back at outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose staff has laid the blame at Obama's feet. "There are times," he said, "there's no doubt about it, where, you know I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we're trying to do and why this is the right direction."

With Republicans trying to pressure Obama not to do executive action on immigration before year's end because they're working on it, Obama is re-calibrating his message to try not to appear impatient while pressing ahead. "What I'm saying to them, actually, their time hasn't run out," he said. "If in fact it's true that they want to pass a bill, they've got good ideas, nobody's stopping them. And the minute they do it, and the minute I sign that bill, then what I've done goes away."

On his move to double the U.S. forces back into Iraq to about 3,000, Obama rejected the notion that meant his previous approach to fighting the Islamic State terror group wasn't enough while also insisting this isn't a return to U.S. combat. He said his military advisers say sending more forces now means "we may actually see fewer troops over time." It's a "new phase" that puts the U.S. and Iraqi government on offense rather than defense, he said.

Obama also did something interesting on the messaging about the Islamic State by invoking its ties in Iraq to Saddam Hussein. He called the group "an extreme group of the sort we haven't seen before, but it also combines terrorist tactics with on the ground capabilities, in part because they incorporate a lot of Saddam Hussein's old military commanders."

The president refused to talk in detail about a secret letter he sent to the supreme leader of Iran about fighting the Islamic State, except to say that the U.S. won't connect its nuclear talks with Iran to its approach to the terror organization.

He did elaborate on the broader U.S. relationship with Iran, and why Iran's "anti-Israeli rhetoric and behavior" and sponsorship of terrorism would continue to limit it. "So that's a whole other set of issues which prevents us from ever being true allies," he said, adding that "there's still a big gap" with Iran on the nuclear negotiations with another deadline approaching this month. While progress has been made, Obama said, "we may not be able to get there."

Schieffer also aired an interview Sunday with President George W. Bush, and in an interesting juxtaposition with Obama, Bush talked about how his father lost re-election even after his popular Gulf War success driving Saddam Hussein  back into Iraq.

Bush called that an "an interesting lesson of how to spend political capital." In his father's case, Bush said, the White House has failed to show Americans "that domestic politics really mattered for George Bush as much as international politics."

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