Casually describing sweeping Republican election gains as “a good night” for the GOP, President Barack Obama promised on Wednesday to work with the GOP to “take care of business” but offered to make few changes to his priorities, principles, staff or style.
“There’s no doubt that Republicans had a good night,” the president said in his first press conference since Tuesday’s drubbing of Democrats. “It doesn’t make me mopey, it energizes me, because it means that this democracy’s working.”
Brushing off Republican warnings, Obama defiantly vowed to forge ahead with executive action on immigration if Congress refuses to enact a comprehensive overhaul that cleared the Democrat-held Senate but stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
“I have no doubt that there will be some Republicans who are angered or frustrated by any executive action that I may take,” he said. “My executive actions not only do not prevent them from passing a law that supersedes those actions, but should be a spur for them to actually try to get something done.”
His remarks came after Republican Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, virtually certain to lead the chamber when the next Congress convenes in January, sharply cautioned Obama not to head down that path.
“It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say ‘if you guys don’t do what I want, I’m going to do it on my own,’” the Kentucky lawmaker told reporters. “It poisons the well for the opportunity to address a very important domestic issue.”
Obama noted that he had reached out to key lawmakers by telephone on Tuesday and Wednesday and would host McConnell and the other Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate on Friday. And the president sketched out his plans for the looming “lame-duck” session.
He confirmed that he was asking Congress for $6.2 billion to battle the spread of Ebola in Africa and shore up America’s defenses against the deadly disease. He revealed that he would ask lawmakers for an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the so-called Islamic State, a stark reversal from his previous public insistence that he did not need or want new legal authority.
“The idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight rather than previous fights,” he said.
Obama pressed lawmakers to approve spending legislation in a “bipartisan, drama-free way” to keep the government open past the December expiration of current funding.
The president cast the elections as a rejection of dysfunction and gridlock in Washington rather than a resounding repudiation of his policies.
“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,” he said. “The point is, it’s time for us to take care of business.”
But he dismissed calls for changes to his inner circle or approach to key issues as “premature” and warned of coming battles with congressional Republicans.
“Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign. I’m pretty sure I’ll take some actions that some in Congress will not like. That’s natural,” he said.
Over the course of the 70-minute question-and-answer session, Obama tackled some of the most pressing political issues in the aftermath of the elections and sketched out the upcoming White House course.
On possible outreach to McConnell and Republican House Speaker John Boehner:
“I’m going to try different things, whether it’s having a drink with Mitch McConnell or letting John Boehner beat me again at golf,” he said. Boehner, known to be a better golfer than the president, teamed up with Obama in 2011 to beat a team of Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich.
“I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell. I don’t know what his preferred drink is,” he said. McConnell told Yahoo News in 2013 that he enjoys his bourbon in Manhattans.
On potential Republican efforts to change Obamacare or even repeal it.
“Repeal of the law I won’t sign,” he said. Repealing the individual mandate “is a line I can’t cross” because it would cause the law to collapse.
But if Republicans want to change the law “to make it work better, I’m going to be very open and receptive to hearing those ideas.”
On whether he is a lame duck:
“Traditionally after the last midterm of a two-term presidency, since I can’t run again, that’s the label that -- that you guys apply,” he said.
On approving the Keystone XL pipeline:
“On Keystone there’s an independent process” running throught the State Department, he said. “It’s moving forward, and I’m going to let that process play out.”:
On the prospects of reaching an agreement with Iran to ensure that the country does not develop nuclear weapons:
“Whether we can actually get a deal done, we’re going to have to find out over the next three to four weeks,” before a Nov. 24 deadline for the talks to succeed, he said.
On whether the United States is winning the military campaign against the Islamic State:
“It’s too early to say whether we are winning,” Obama said. But U.S.-led airstrikes on the extremist militia have left it “in a more vulnerable position and it is more difficult for them to maneuver than it was previously.”
On whether he was upset that Democrats did not want to be seen with him on the 2014 campaign trail:
“I love campaigning. I love talking to ordinary people. I love listening to their stories. I love shaking hands and getting hugs and — and just seeing the process of democracy and citizenship manifest itself during an election. But I’m also a practical guy.”
In the sixth year of a presidency, Obama said, “you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs and you’ve gotten more than your fair share of attention.”
“I’ve had the limelight, and there have been times where the request for my appearances were endless. There have been times where politically we were down. And it all kind of evens out,” he said. “Which is why what’s most important, I think, is keeping your eye on the ball. And that is, are you actually getting some good done?”