The GOP’s midterm rout of President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Biden administration breaks down climate finance roadmap Pelosi hilariously scolds media for not 'selling' .5T spending bill: 'Do a better job' MORE and Democrats is a wake-up call for the White House that should usher in changes, former administration officials and other Democrats say.
“One thing is clear, things just can't stay the same any longer,” one former official said. “The White House can't just pretend that they're not responsible for some of this. That would be the wrong call.”
The president’s party had a disastrous night at the polls, losing the Senate majority badly and seeing Republicans make gains in the House. Exit polls suggested voter antipathy with Obama’s presidency played a major role.
To make matters worse, the party also had a terrible night in state races, despite campaigning by the president, first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaYouTube confirms it picked kids featured in Harris video Photos of the Week: Congressional Baseball Game, ashen trees and a beach horse The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Gears begin to shift in Congress on stalled Biden agenda MORE and other party stars.
Democrats lost governors races in Maryland, Maine and Obama’s home state of Illinois, and they failed to take out GOP targets like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
The losses triggered immediate finger-pointing, with Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE’s (D-Nev.) chief of staff delivering a scathing interview with The Washington Post that harshly criticized the White House’s political team.
Months ago, Democrats were vocal about the lack of a political contact at the White House. The sentiment caused some reshuffling, but some feared it was too little, too late.
The former official said the election “has to be a wake-up call” for the embattled White House, which had already seen calls for staff changes from insiders such as former Obama adviser David Axelrod.
“There's going to have to be a post-mortem of what went wrong and how,” a second former official said.
While the White House cautioned that staffing changes will not come quickly after the elections, one aide said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is already soliciting outside advice to prepare for the coming lame-duck session and the final two years of Obama’s presidency.
Obama may give a glimpse of his attitude about the next two years in a White House press conference scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
One former administration official predicted that Obama would "scale back his agenda" and take a more centrist approach in his final two years, while another said the GOP is likely to see a less combative version of Obama.
“I think the president has to try another charm offensive with the top and try and make things happen,” the official said.
Before the elections, White House aides said Obama still planned to work administratively to pursue his policy goals.
“Regardless of the outcome over the course of the next two years, the president will look for ways to use his executive authority to benefit middle-class families,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
That includes plans to forge ahead with sweeping executive action on immigration before the end of the calendar year.
But Tony Fratto, who served as a White House spokesman for President George W. Bush after a 2006 midterm thumping in which the GOP lost the House and Senate, questioned whether those plans will change. While he would personally like to see major changes in immigration policy, Fratto said, an executive order on the issue might have the reverse effect.
“As sympathetic as I am on that issue, there's no question an executive order will be counter-productive to getting legislation — although immigration is, unfortunately, the longest of long shots under the best of circumstances,” Fratto said.
Supporters of Obama are hopeful the changing dynamic will put more pressure on Republican leaders to work with Obama to show that they can govern.
“They can no longer be the party of no, and they have to prove that they're the party of ideas that can pass into law,” the first former official said.
“When the champagne wears off, they have to prove that it was worth giving them the keys,” the former official said.
Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said it would be a “mistake” for Republicans to read too much into their victory.
“If they think that opposing the president and not solving problems is a winning strategy in 2016 then their victory tonight will be short lived,” Thornell said.
Republicans, though, expressed some skepticism that major legislative compromises could be achieved.
“I think this administration is stuck in the doldrums,” Fratto said. “I don't see bridgeable positions on most major issues — tax policy, immigration, energy and climate. The GOP's views on these issues and healthcare are directionally different from the Obama administration. I just don't see how they get to negotiated solutions on those issues this late in the administration.”
William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said Obama has to choose whether his final two years will be a time of confrontation or cooperation with a GOP Congress.
Galston said he would recommend the latter.
“[Obama] faces a pretty stark choice about being remembered for two years of legislation followed by six years of gridlock or two years of legislation followed by four years of gridlock followed by a strong finish. And he should want a strong finish, which anyone in showbiz would tell you is very important,” he said.