WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came under sharp attack from the White House and Democrats Tuesday for saying that his top priority in the next Congress is to ensure that President Barack Obama serves only one term.
The Kentucky Republican made the statement during an interview with National Journal. But it's a variation on a line he has been using as he has stumped the country on behalf of Republican candidates in advance of the Nov. 2 midterm election.
"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," he said in the interview.
With a Republican takeover of at least the House looking likely next week, McConnell's comment was seized upon by Democratic critics as a reflection of the GOP's determination to pursue a strategy of conflict rather than conciliation with the White House over the next two years.
"It's a deeply disappointing message that, regardless of the outcome of this election, political gridlock and political gamesmanship is what the American people have to look forward to over the next two years," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
"The job of the president and the job of any senator or any member of the House after this election is going to be solving the problems of this country, of which we know there are quite a few that need to be addressed," Gibbs said.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer defended his boss' comments.
"Ending the Obama administration's liberal agenda as soon as possible is Sen. McConnell's top political priority," Steurer said. "The American people are clamoring for a focus on jobs and righting our economy … and that's McConnell's focus for the next two years."
The Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
But at least one political observer said McConnell's goal should come as no surprise.
"Of course, Republicans want to make Obama a one-term president — just like the Democrats had hoped to make President (George W.) Bush a one-term president," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Still, he said, McConnell's aspiration "was poorly worded."
That is a legitimate goal of the opposition party, but it was undiplomatic to suggest it was the top priority," Sabato said.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said voters this year "are not interested in confrontation. They want the two parties to get together, to collaborate to find common-sense solutions."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said in a statement that McConnell was promising "two more years of politics as usual."
"Mitch McConnell's idea of 'achievement' illustrates everything that's wrong with the Republican Party," Kaine said. "For Republicans, it's not about creating jobs; not about economic recovery or security; not about creating better educational opportunities. For Republicans, it's about partisanship over solutions."
What McConnell said was a rare miscue for a usually careful politician, said Norman Ornstein, senior analyst with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington think tank.
"Saying 'I'm going to take the majority and cut the president off at his knees' implies it won't matter if it damages the economic situation in the country or other priorities," Ornstein said.
But from McConnell's standpoint, it was Obama who was not cooperative for the last two years because he had control of Congress and could do what he wanted, said Tevi Troy, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and a visiting fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, a think tank.
Defeating Obama "is the Republican strategy going into the next Congress," Troy said, "recognizing that President Obama has the veto power and, according to the Republican view, is unlike Bill Clinton (who) moved toward the center."
McConnell has made no secret of his desire to see Obama defeated in 2012.
At a Republican fundraising dinner in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday night, McConnell urged about 250 GOP donors: "Help us stop the Obama administration for the last two years of what I hope is his only term."
McConnell has been saying in campaign appearances — and, before that, in many Senate floor speeches — that Obama and the Democrats have been pursuing a "left wing" agenda involving government control over banks, car companies and health care, increasing regulations and running up spending and debt.
He has been predicting that voters will reject that agenda next Tuesday.
"These people need to be stopped — this is serious business," McConnell told the West Virginians.
In the National Journal interview, McConnell said he is trying to apply the lessons of history after midterm elections to avoid making mistakes others made.
"After 1994, the public had the impression we Republicans overpromised and underdelivered," McConnell said, referring to the election in which the GOP took control of the House and the Senate during the first term of President Bill Clinton.
"We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him," the senator said. "By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being re-elected, and we were hanging on for our lives."
McConnell said the GOP needed "to treat this election as the first step in retaking the government."
Asked if trying to make Obama a one-term president would mean frequent confrontation with the White House, McConnell said: "If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he's willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it's not inappropriate for us to do business with him."
But McConnell also said his eye is on 2012.
"Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful," he said.