Facing the prospect of big Republican gains in Congress, President Barack Obama is sending voters a mixed message: He says he sees opportunities to work with the GOP after Election Day yet warns Washington could be consumed by gridlock if the opposition takes control.
It's a strategy based on Obama's need for voters to see him as the same politician who ran for the White House promising a new era of bipartisanship, at the same time he rallies his base to try to stave off sweeping Republican victories in the Nov. 2 midterm elections.
During a town hall meeting with young people, Obama said there are good GOP ideas, and some issues where he sees an opportunity to work with Republican lawmakers.
"My hope is that as we look forward, let's say on education or on energy, some of the things that we haven't yet finished, that we're going to have a greater spirit of cooperation after this next election," Obama said.
Just two days later, at a private fundraiser near Boston, Obama warned that the prospects of bipartisan cooperation would be slim if Republicans ran Congress. He said it would be nearly impossible for him to advance some important issues, like clean energy and education, or to achieve many of his foreign policy goals.
"Not one of these issues will we be able to make serious progress on if we do not have a strong Democratic Senate," Obama said.
The president's message was even more foreboding at a recent Democratic National Committee fundraiser, when he predicted that a GOP-led Congress would create a stalemate between the White House and Capitol Hill. "We could even go backwards," he said.
White House officials say there's nothing inconsistent in Obama's remarks. Adviser David Axelrod said Obama wants to work with Republicans but his experience from the first half of the administration makes him "a little pessimistic." And he said it's important for voters to understand that the potential for gridlock exists if Republicans take control of Congress.
"We want Democratic majorities," Axelrod said. "We don't want things throttled down."
The highly partisan atmosphere that has consumed Washington throughout Obama's two years in office has discouraged voters.
An Associated Press-GfK poll finds 84 percent of likely voters say they're frustrated by politics, and 81 percent say they're disappointed. The same poll also suggests that 61 percent of likely voters believe the GOP will win control of Congress in the midterm election, with most of those voters believing Republican victories would be a good thing for the country.
Should Obama's party lose control of Congress, the president may have little choice but to work with Republicans on key issues when the new session of Congress opens in January.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says there are several issues where he envisions cooperation between the president and a more Republican Congress, such as trade, government spending and changing an arcane tax reporting requirement that's part of the unpopular health care overhaul. But McConnell said a bipartisan effort will only be possible if the administration listens to voters on Election Day.
"I can't believe he's going to continue to ignore the wishes of the American people if his party has a very bad day Nov. 2," McConnell said by phone. "If he pivots and wants to work with us, obviously I'd be happy to talk to him."
Republicans have shown little interest in working with Obama and Democrats over the past two years, often using delaying tactics to try to block legislation. And McConnell has said he wishes the party could have obstructed more.