Assume the polls are correct and Republicans win control of the House, and perhaps even the Senate, in next month's elections. What lessons will the White House learn? Will Barack Obama interpret the vote as a repudiation of much of his agenda, or will he conclude that he made a few tactical errors but was still right on the big issues?
Bet on the latter. All indications coming out of the White House suggest that if Democrats suffer major losses, the president and his top aides will resolutely refuse to reconsider the policies -- national health care, stimulus, runaway spending -- that led to their defeat. Instead, they will point fingers in virtually every direction other than their own. Come November, it's likely the D-for-Democrat that the president refers to so often will actually stand for "denial."
The White House has given us plenty of clues in recent days as to how Obama will react to a possible Democratic drubbing at the polls. Here are five.
1. Obama will blame voters, not himself. At a small fundraiser in Massachusetts recently, Obama suggested Democrats are in trouble because recession-weary Americans simply aren't thinking clearly. "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared," Obama said. "And the country is scared." If Democrats lose, Obama is likely to fault voters' irrationality and not anything he has done.
2. Obama will spin the outcome as an illegitimate GOP victory. In recent weeks, the president and top administration officials have accused the Chamber of Commerce of illegally using foreign contributions to fund ads critical of Democrats. There's no evidence to support the charge, but Obama has laid the foundation for a simple explanation of Democratic defeat: Republicans cheated.
3. Obama will blame a broken process. In a recent New York Times article, reporter Peter Baker asked a number of White House aides about mistakes Obama has made in office. "The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers," Baker writes, "was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions." By that standard, a post-defeat Obama will be guilty more of overestimating Republicans and the culture of Washington than of making mistakes on his own.
4. Obama will reaffirm, not reconsider, his achievements. The president says he has already kept about 70 percent of the promises he made in the 2008 campaign. Now, his main task will be to shield those accomplishments from GOP challenge. Aides constantly tell reporters that Republicans intend to roll back Obamacare and Wall Street reform, and the president plans to spend as much time as it takes fighting those efforts. "There's going to be a lot of work in [the next two years] just doing things right and making sure that new laws are stood up in the ways they're intended," Obama told Baker.
5. Obama will resist real change inside the White House. The president has lost several top aides in recent months: Rahm Emanuel, James Jones, Lawrence Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orszag and others. So far, Obama has preferred to replace departing insiders with other insiders. His reluctance to bring in a high-level adviser from outside his circle suggests he wants to keep doing what he's doing.
Tie all those threads together, and in the wake of a Republican victory in November you can virtually guarantee the White House will not concede that the president hurt himself by pushing an unpopular national health care program through Congress; by pushing nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus spending that failed to reduce unemployment as predicted; by pushing a costly cap-and-trade agenda; or by advocating any number of other initiatives that flew in the face of voter sentiments.
In a recent campaign ad, Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck says the public tried to tell White House and Democratic leaders not to go ahead with those unwelcome measures. "They heard us, and yet they ignored us," Buck says, adding: "And folks, on Nov. 2 they will ignore us no more." Republicans no doubt hope Buck is right. But so far Obama is sending signals that even if he loses big in November, he'll make excuses, point fingers and try to keep going just as before.