White House officials were in crisis mode today, but gave no public indication of changing course in the wake of a humbling defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race.
Briefing reporters just hours after the Democratic Party lost its supermajority in the Senate, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs glumly acknowledged that Republican Senator-Elect Scott Brown's election was "a wake up call" not just for the administration but for "everybody in this town."
Gibbs said responsibility for Democrat Martha Coakley's loss rests with many parties, including the White House. He also acknowledged that there is a sense of "anger and frustration in this country" that is directed toward his boss, "because we are in charge."
The press secretary and other top Obama advisers are not at this point publicly committing themselves to making substantive changes in the president's agenda. The president "will undoubtedly address the results and what they mean in the State of the Union," Gibbs said. "The agenda though that the president was going to focus on and is going to focus on in the coming year - jobs, fiscal responsibility -- many of the things he has talked about the last several weeks will be what he focuses on during the State of the Union and the coming year."
By contrast, the idea of staying the course is the furthest thing from the minds of Democrats outside the White House. Many Democrats are hotly debating whether the election was a sign that they should tack right -- or whether they should redevote themselves to the principles that got Obama elected last November.
"If you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up," Senator Evan Bayh, a conservative Democrat from Indiana, said last night. Bayh, for his part, said the Obama agenda has tilted too far to the left.
"I don't think what Senator Bayh would argue is that we somehow abandon our pursuit on things that are important to the middle class," Gibbs shot back during an interview with MSNBC this morning. "I think we all agree that we have to work even harder on [economic matters] and have the American people understand that the focus of the President's day from the very beginning to the very end is on their economic situation."
Similarly, in an interview with the Huffington Post last night, Senior Adviser David Axelrod made the case that "moving forward" on the president's prerogatives would help wipe away some of the disillusionment that had set in.
"We had to do some politically difficult things last year in order to deal with the mess we walked into," he said. "None of that was particularly popular because people didn't see immediate improvement and thought that money coming out of their pockets was going to places other than them. You can see all of that. But we did what was needed to be done. I think we need to move forward now. We have broken the back of the recession... but we need to move forward aggressively, continuing on job creation, and on financial regulatory reform."
The need for a change in direction is not just coming from the party's conservative figures -- Bayh and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- but also from the progressive wing, and from a cadre of strategists.
"The most important thing is for Democrats to acknowledge that they need to change course and then to change course," said Simon Rosenberg, a former Clinton administration official and head of the Democratic group NDN. "They must acknowledge it has not been a good first year and they have to change."
"If you want to win you actually can't move to the middle and become a Republican," former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said on MSNBC Tuesday night. "You have to stand up and stand for the things that you got elected on and the Democratic Party believes in. We haven't seen that on the health care bill and I think that's part of the problem."
In the end, the White House does seem likely to incorporate some of these suggestions into its approach going forward. There could well be some strategic changes -- more arm-twisting on the Hill, higher-profile speeches and public events, threats to recalcitrant Democrats and obstructing Republicans -- but some changes could come at the policy level, for instance by taking a tougher line against Wall Street. The results will be clear by, at the latest, Obama's upcoming State of the Union address a week from today.
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