Obama Dominates at Republican Retreat
Following up on his efforts to rally the crestfallen American public around his presidential agenda via his first State of the Union address on Wednesday, Obama took his show on the road to Baltimore on Friday, where Republican House leaders have gathered for their party's annual retreat.
As the GOP lawmakers convened around a weekend dedicated to plotting -- among other things -- their recapture of the White House, the President engaged them in what became a lively sparring match, not unlike the "question time" British prime ministers participate in with Parliament on a weekly basis. Things in London can get loud and testy, but Obama faced a particularly partisan crowd that he blames for deadlocking his legislative agenda.
Obama has addressed Republican leaders before, but what made Friday's encounter so unique is that it was almost entirely unscripted, a rarity in presidential politics.
Among the gems uttered during the 90-minute question-and-answer session was Obama's complaint to the audience that their party regularly caricatures him as a radical "ideologue" whose health care plan is actually "a Bolshevik plot" to take over America. In turn, GOP leaders told the president that he and other Democrats are wrong to paint Republicans as "The Party of No."
In acknowledgment, Obama reiterated what he said in his State of the Union speech -- that he is partly to blame for the highly partisan divisions in Washington.
What made the encounter so interesting is that it was televised -- a request made by the White House and which the GOP leadership seems to have grudgingly acquiesced to at the last minute, in order to deflect attacks about transparency and open government. Presidents always address the opposing party at these annual retreats, with a prepared speech broadcast to the entire nation, but the Q&A portion is normally conducted behind closed doors.
The rare openness has allowed the mainstream media to coalesce around the idea that Obama was the winner today, rather than writing about a prepared speech like almost any other the president gives. Indicative of this, the New York Times wrote:
Mr. Obama did show a strong command of the issues and deflect some of the Republican criticisms of his handling of them. He pointedly noted that while Republicans have assailed his economic stimulus package, “some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities.”
Already, GOP members in attendance have voiced concern over the decision to televise the event. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, told MSNBC that Obama "scored many points. He did really well." Another Republican said, "It was a mistake that we allowed the cameras to roll like that. We should not have done that."
I worry about what a tradition such as this one would beget in the standards for future presidential candidates. It would certainly greatly favor a professorial, debate-centric president, perhaps at the expense of other leaderships skills.
Of course, some right-wingers think the fact that Obama addressed the GOP in such a way is evidence of what's being called the "Scott Brown effect," whereby Obama foresees further disaster for his party in the midterm elections this November, and must make amends with Republicans as soon as possible.
Regardless of who came out a victor today -- the GOP or Obama -- there is consensus that the back-and-forth in Baltimore did not bring any consensus to the logjammed issues that have consumed Congress since Obama was sworn into office.
Instead, there appear to be glimmers of hope throughout the political spectrum that today's exchange could be a harbinger for a more exciting, engaging mode of political discourse, particularly as the country braces itself for the midterm ballot.
Fewer prepared press releases and fewer closed doors -- and more public banter, please.