Washington (AFP) - US President Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to work with Republican lawmakers after their midterm election win but warned he would act without them to protect his core agenda, starting with immigration reform.
The US leader stopped short of accepting direct responsibility for his Democratic party's colossal defeat at the hands of opponents who successfully turned the election into a repudiation of his policies.
The GOP snatched control of the Senate, tightened its grip on the House of Representatives and won key Democrat governorships, in an election Obama admitted was "a good night" for Republicans.
"To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you," Obama said.
Congress's two top Republicans said the new legislature would focus on jobs and the economy, and move to repeal Obama's signature achievement -- the health care bill known as Obamacare, which provides medical insurance for millions who lack it.
"We’ll also consider legislation to help protect and expand America’s emerging energy boom and to support innovative charter schools around the country," House speaker John Boehner and the incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell wrote in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
Democrats suffering from the whiplash of their overwhelming defeat were left to contemplate what went wrong.
Some Republicans nevertheless acknowledged they need to find avenues of cooperation with Obama so they are seen as capable congressional stewards ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
In a lengthy White House news conference, Obama insisted he was "eager to work with the new Congress to make the next two years as productive as possible."
Both sides have pointed to the passage of tax reform and approval of two stalled international trade agreements as potential areas of cooperation between the camps.
Obama said he would also ask the new Congress for help in battling the spread of Ebola in west Africa and beyond, and to endorse US-led military action gainst jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
But, in the absence of a strong legislative base for the remaining two years of his presidency, Obama said he would press ahead with plans on immigration reform.
He said he would take executive action this year, without waiting to see whether the new Congress makes progress toward a comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill.
"My executive actions not only do not prevent them from passing a law that supersedes those actions, but should be a spur for them to actually try to get something done," Obama insisted.
- 'Red flag' on immigration -
That sets up a potential firestorm with congressional leaders, McConnell, who just minutes before Obama spoke expressed an eagerness to cooperate with the president but warned against such a unilateral move.
Taking executive action on immigration, without votes in Congress, would be "like waving a red flag in front of a bull," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.
Despite Obama insisting he was optimistic about America's future, exit polls Tuesday confirmed the pessimistic mood that several Republican winners had capitalized on.
Voters are convinced the nation is headed in the wrong direction and are skeptical of the abilities of the president and his Democrats to turn things around.
At least one senior Democratic official, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's chief of staff, suggested Obama came up short in encouraging voters to back his own party.
Instead of providing a direct mea culpa for the election losses, Obama noted that Americans of all stripes have grown frustrated with Washington, "and as president they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly."
"Obviously Republicans had a good night and they deserve credit for running good campaigns," Obama said. "Beyond that I'll leave it to you and professional pundits to pick through the results."
The tone was a world away from president Bill Clinton's acceptance of "responsibility" the day after his Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress 20 years ago.
While Obama said he would "measure ideas, not whether they're from Republicans or Democrats but whether they work for the American people," he reiterated he would use his veto powers on any bill that repealed his landmark health care reform that he insists has begun to work well for millions.
"Efforts that would take away health care from the 10 million people who now have it and the millions more who are eligible to get it, we're not going to support."
But he acknowledged he would study Republican proposals to make "responsible changes" to the law.
Obama's occasionally aloof 70-minute press conference earned a swift rebuke from the Republican National Committee, which suggested the president was "in denial" about the election.
US financial markets closed at fresh record highs after the elections lifted hopes for pro-business policies. Europe's leading stock markets and the dollar also rallied.