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Obama blames economy for Democratic 'shellacking'

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Obama: Power rests with people
  • NEW: Obama plans to meet with congressional leaders soon on extending tax cuts
  • Tuesday's vote was a "shellacking" for Democrats, Obama says
  • Obama defends his policies, but admits people "aren't feeling that progress"
  • GOP wins aren't a mandate to "re-litigate" past legislation, Obama says

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday blamed the anemic economy for the "shellacking" his fellow Democrats experienced in this week's midterm elections, but he acknowledged his policies hadn't done enough to bring down high unemployment.

His administration has "stabilized" the economy and spurred private-sector hiring, "but people all across America aren't feeling that progress," Obama said in a news conference the day after Republicans seized majority control of the House and whittled down the Democratic majority in the Senate.

He called the results a "shellacking" for him and said: "I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make."

"If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices," Obama said.

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The president faced reporters a day after voters replaced at least 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives, according to CNN projections, returning control of the chamber to Republicans, who lost it in 2006. In the Senate, Democrats lost at least six seats but retained control of the chamber, according to the projections based on analysis of exit polling.

Asked directly about the claims by Republicans, especially Tea Party conservatives, that his policies are taking the country in the wrong direction, Obama cited the economy's reversal from monthly job losses to private sector job growth since he took office as proof things are improving. But he also conceded, in reference to an auto-related campaign analogy, that the argument could be made that "we're stuck in neutral."

Obama said he's looking at "all ideas that are on the table" to boost economic growth after the deepest recession since the 1930s, and won't dismiss any proposal "because they're Democrat or Republican."

At the same time, Obama said it would be a "misreading" of the election results if anyone believed the American people want to spend the next two years trying to "relitigate" his administration's overhaul of health care or other major legislation of his first two years in office.

Republicans throughout the campaign blasted Obama's signature health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, after voting all but unanimously against it in Congress. Obama called the process of passing the bill "an ugly mess" and "something that I regret," but added: "The outcome was a good one."

He called for the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, in which Democrats will still hold majorities in both chambers until the end of the year, to address significant issues such as extending Bush-era tax cuts for most Americans, extending unemployment benefits for jobless Americans and repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay and lesbian soldiers.

Asked about expected Republican opposition to any increased spending, Obama acknowledged the two parties differ in principle on some issues but said he hopes for more GOP cooperation going forward, noting that "without any Republican support on anything, it's going to be hard to get things done."

Instead of holding up progress on intractable differences, the two sides could move ahead on provisions on which they agree while trying to sort out their other differences, Obama said.

As an example, he said he intends to meet with congressional leaders from both parties "in the next few weeks" to negotiate a compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire by the end of the year.

Obama wants the tax cuts extended for the 98 percent of the population that earns up to $200,000 a year as individuals or $250,000 a year for families, while returning tax rates on higher income to levels from the 1990s.

Republicans argue that allowing the tax rates on higher income to rise would stifle small business growth and harm the economy. Either option is costly -- the Obama plan would take more than $3 trillion out of tax receipts over the next 10 years, while the Republican call to extend all the tax breaks would cost about $4 trillion.

"We've got some work to do to make sure that families are not seeing a higher tax burden, which is what will happen if Congress doesn't act," Obama said.

At midnight Tuesday he phoned Ohio Rep. John Boehner, who is likely to be the next House speaker, to congratulate him on the GOP takeover of the chamber. The president told both Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell that he wants to work with them to "find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people," the White House said.

Republicans are coming into office on pledges to dismantle the health-care overhaul, but Boehner and Obama held what the incoming speaker called a "brief but pleasant conversation."

Aides to Obama said he also placed calls to the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from Maryland, who now face uncertain futures within the Democratic leadership.

Obama said Wednesday that one of the toughest things about Tuesday's election was seeing members of Congress who made tough and politically unpopular votes for health care reform and other important legislation lose their jobs.

At the same time, Obama acknowledged that he has failed to deliver on his 2008 campaign theme of changing politics as usual in Washington. His administration was in "such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things get done, and I think that frustrated people," Obama said.

CNN's Matt Smith and Tom Cohen contributed to this story.