To me it seems the president has probably considered the very question Balz raised—I suspect many times for at least the past six months—but has just come up with a different answer than Balz and others may have wanted. As my colleague Clint Hendler neatly summarized yesterday, the exit polling from which this Obama meme is emerging does not show a “fundamental rejection” of the president’s agenda. His disapproval rating is high and climbing, true, but when grilled on why people voted the way they did, Obama and his policies were not at the forefront of the majority’s mind. Indeed, “frustration with the economy” came out on top.

According to CNN’s exit polling, thirty-seven percent of voters in House races said they were voting to oppose Obama; fifty-one percent said that they were voting in support of him or that he played no factor. Forty-eight percent of voters wanted the health care bill repealed; forty-seven percent wanted it to stay as is or be expanded. Only eighteen percent of voters said health care was a top priority; sixty-two percent voted for the economy on that one.

With those figures on hand, it’s unsurprising that the president isn’t willing to concede that voters rejected his agenda outright, or to cry about being misunderstood, or to say much beyond what he said in response to the questions posed at yesterday’s news conference. It’s neither in his nature—as many have pointed out today—nor in the numbers. The story isn’t there, and in his tempered performance, the president was telling us as much. No doubt a chest full of policies, decisions, mannerisms, and speeches contributed to the result. But none fit the “total rejection” headline with which some in the press had entered the room. And still the bait was laid. Three times.

A more direct, supported, and on-point first question might have been this: Mr. President, the results of yesterday show there is still an extraordinary level of frustration about the economy—how are you going to work with the Republican majority to fix it? It may not have served the press by giving everyone the lede they wanted, but if the polls from Tuesday are to be believed, it would have better served the public.

To be fair, variations on this were asked. Questions about cooperation, the Bush tax cuts, environmental policy. But their responses weren’t the kind of news-worthy nuggets we were looking for. What are people writing about today? Whether Obama feels our pain as much as the more emotional Boehner clearly does.


If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.