WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (AFP) – President Barack Obama admitted he suffered a "shellacking" in mid-term elections, but would not concede the rout represented a massive repudiation of his transformative domestic agenda.
A chastened president instead blamed the loss of the House of Representatives and Republican gains in the Senate on deep voter frustration at the sluggish recovery and his failure to clean up the "ugly mess" in Washington.
|US President Barack Obama admits he suffered a "shellacking" in mid-term elections. AFP|
"It feels bad," Obama said, digesting his defeat in a White House news conference setting the tone for a looming period of divided government and political confrontation in which he must now chart his 2012 re-election bid.
"There is no doubt that people's number-one concern is the economy, and what they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven't made enough progress on the economy," Obama said.
"They don't see it... so I think I have got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make."
"I have got to do a better job -- just like everybody else in Washington does."
Republican leaders meanwhile, savoring deep countrywide gains, promised to seek common ground where possible, but warned voters had sent a signal that Obama's reform plans had gone too far and must be halted.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, in line to replace the first woman speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi in January, said Obama must "change course."
"I think it's pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner told reporters, and called Obama's signature health reform law a "monstrosity."
Pelosi said Wednesday she had "no regrets" after strong Republican gains in the House of Representatives cut short her stint as the first female Speaker of the House.
Pelosi, 70, also acknowledged she had not decided what the future holds for her specifically, though she won reelection to a two-year House term representing her district in California.
"I'll have a conversation with my caucus, I'll have a conversation with my family, and pray over it, and decide how to go forward," Pelosi told ABC television. "But today isn't that day."
With pundits already warning Tuesday's rout could augur ill for Obama's 2012 reelection bid, the president also said that ex-president's Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had suffered mid-term pain, but won second terms.
"I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night," he said, noting how hard it was in the White House "bubble" to feel the pain of ordinary Americans.
"You know, I'm sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons."
But Obama repeatedly avoided the chance offered by journalists to concede that his sweeping political agenda, including health care reform, had been an overreach of his 2008 mandate.
And he said it was now important for Democrats and Republicans to sit together and seek common ground on creating jobs and the economy.
Republicans, bouncing back from their own election drubbing by Obama in 2008, had picked up 60 seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives by midday Wednesday, more than the 39 they needed for a majority.
They also grabbed an extra six seats in the 100-member Senate, with two outstanding races yet to be decided, setting the stage for a likely gridlock in Washington, despite voter demands for both parties to work together.
Republican leaders spoke the language of compromise, but left no doubt that they believed they were emboldened by the election to turn back the social reform drive that Obama launched after his euphoric election.
Eric Cantor, Boehner's number two, reflected the view that Tuesday's election was less a vote of confidence for Republicans than an angry repudiation of incumbent US politicians.
"The American people have had it with Washington. Last night's vote was a vote to say, you know what, Washington better start listening to the people again."
Obama's top Senate ally Harry Reid meanwhile enjoyed his victory over conservative Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, and admitted on MSNBC that Obama was in a "hole," but argued history suggested he could bounce back.
"We have to work together. We have so many problems in this country that we can't have people saying no to everything," Reid told MSNBC.
The Republican rout is all the more stunning given the moribund state of the party after the Democrats' sweeping victory of 2008 and is evidence of a period of sharp volatility in US politics ahead of the 2012 White House race.
Democrats will hand over the House leaving a historic legacy, including health care reform and a Wall Street overhaul, and claim they staved off a second Great Depression.
But they paid a heavy price for the sluggish economic recovery that has yet to be felt countrywide and unemployment pegged at a stubborn 9.6 percent.
In a true embarrassment for Obama, Republicans won his former US Senate seat, as Mark Kirk beat presidential friend Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois.
Democrats did manage to reclaim the governor's mansion in the most populous state, California, as Jerry Brown defeated former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Republicans were jubilant.
"We've come to take our government back!" cried Rand Paul, a hero of the Tea Party movement, after winning a Senate seat in Kentucky.
"There's a Tea Party tidal wave," he said, in a coming-of-age moment for the movement set up to challenge what they call Obama's "big-government" takeover of American life.