The chameleon we call American politics moulted on Friday afternoon, changed for the better, right along with at least the short-term fortunes of the Obama administration. Reeling from both the perception that it was off track in pursuit of its domestic agenda and the reality of numerous opinion polls pointing deep south, the Obama White House, and the Democrats generally, have been in a kind of torpor, a seeming numb helplessness to the Republican forces arrayed against them. Despite being the majority party.
So much of the opposition to Obama initiatives had been deployed by the conservative press and well out of earshot of the president himself. They talk about him like a dog when he’s not around. Which is what made what happened on Friday so flat-out historic.
At the invitation of the Republicans, President Obama attended a Republican House lawmakers’ retreat in Baltimore with the intent of answering questions from the group on his policy proposals, and the legislative and procedural logjams the Republicans have erected from almost the start of his administration.
The Republicans, no doubt emotionally buoyed by the big Scott Brown win in Massachusetts, doubled down on chutzpah: They agreed to televise the event. “The Republicans agreed to let TV cameras inside, resulting in an extended, point-by-point interchange that was almost unprecedented in U.S. politics, except perhaps during presidential debates,” the Associated Press said.
“At times it seemed more like Britain's ‘question time’ -- when lawmakers in the House of Commons trade barbs with the prime minister -- than a meeting between a U.S. president and members of Congress,” AP reported.
But the feast of president under magnifying glass the Republicans were expecting turned out to be something else again. With a deft rhetorical approach by turns lawyerly and fraternal, tough and charitable, President Obama essentially called Bullshit on the Republican politics of obstructionism, and bearded the elephants in their lair.
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Obama had good reason to feel buoyed himself. He’d just come off his first State of the Union address, one that combined real solid doable proposals ($30 billion to small businesses, for one) with the high rhetorical flourishes we’ve come to expect from the most verbally gifted president we’ve had in a while.
But there was something else. At the State of the Union, Obama chided Republican lawmakers, gently but clearly castigating them for blocking or hobbling all of his most pressing domestic policy objectives. Obama was calling them out on Wednesday. He finished that process on Friday.
In his opening remarks, Obama criticized what he said was a Washington culture driven by opinion polls and nonstop political campaigns.
“I've said this before, but I'm a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity. Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security -- and that's not something that's only good for our country, it's absolutely essential.
“... The only thing I don't want -- and here I am listening to the American people, and I think they don't want either -- is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like. I know folks, when we're in town there, spend a lot of time reading the polls and looking at focus groups and interpreting which party has the upper hand in November and in 2012 and so on and so on and so on. That's their obsession.
“And I'm not a pundit. I'm just a President, so take it for what it's worth. But I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security.”
Obama then backed the Republicans into a corner on one of their signature platforms — tax cuts — by essentially repeating what he’d said in the State of the Union.
Under his plan, “[e]mployers would get a tax credit of up to $5,000 for every employee they add in 2010. They'd get a tax break for increases in wages, as well. So, if you raise wages for employees making under $100,000, we'd refund part of your payroll tax for every dollar you increase those wages faster than inflation. It's a simple concept. It's easy to understand. It would cut taxes for more than 1 million small businesses.”
“So I hope you join me. Let's get this done.”
Then came the first confrontational haymaker. “[T]he idea of a bipartisan fiscal commission to confront the deficits in the long term died in the Senate the other day,” the president said. “So I'm going to establish such a commission by executive order …”
It wasn’t necessarily a big thing, but it sent a signal: this president wasn’t afraid of using the end-run around the loyal opposition, much the same way his predecessor did when it suited his agenda. Only legally.
And then a warning, the words bearing a touch of the olive branch, their meaning like a chain-mailed glove to the head:
“I'm ready and eager to work with anyone who is willing to proceed in a spirit of goodwill,” Obama said. “But understand, if we can't break free from partisan gridlock, if we can't move past a politics of ‘no,’ if resistance supplants constructive debate, I still have to meet my responsibilities as President. I've got to act for the greater good -- because that, too, is a commitment that I have made.”
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Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, one of Obama’s more strident opponents of late, left himself open to Obama’s jabs. “Stick and move” is good boxer’s advice, but going up against Pence, Obama didn’t really even have to move.
Pence: “[L]ast year about the time you met with us, unemployment was 7.5 percent in this country. Your administration, and your party in Congress, told us that we'd have to borrow more than $700 billion to pay for a so-called stimulus bill. It was a piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts, .... Well, unemployment is 10 percent now, as you well know, Mr. President.
“Now, Republicans offered a stimulus bill at the same time. It cost half as much as the Democratic proposal in Congress, and using your economic analyst models, it would have created twice the jobs at half the cost. It essentially was across-the-board tax relief, Mr. President. ...
“The first question I would pose to you, very respectfully, Mr. President, is would you be willing to consider embracing … in the name of every struggling family in this country, the kind of across-the-board tax relief that Republicans have advocated, that President Kennedy advocated, that President Reagan advocated ...?”
Obama jumps off the turnbuckle: “You're absolutely right that when I was sworn in the hope was that unemployment would remain around 8 [percent], or in the 8 percent range. That was just based on the estimates made by both conservative and liberal economists, because at that point not all the data had trickled in.
“We had lost 650,000 jobs in December. I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that. We had lost, it turns out, 700,000 jobs in January, the month I was sworn in. I'm assuming it wasn't my administration's policies that accounted for that. We lost another 650,000 jobs the subsequent month, before any of my policies had gone into effect. So I'm assuming that wasn't as a consequence of our policies …
“I think we can score political points on the basis of the fact that we underestimated how severe the job losses were going to be. But those job losses took place before any stimulus, whether it was the ones that you guys have proposed or the ones that we proposed, could have ever taken into effect.”
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Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah freshman congressman with more nerve than good sense, weighed into Obama about having broken one of his key campaign promises: “when you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn't. And I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed.”
Obama comes with the uppercut: “Look, the truth of the matter is that if you look at the health care process -- just over the course of the year -- overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating. I mean, how many committees were there that helped to shape this bill? Countless hearings took place.”
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It wasn’t always that easy. Obama had to contend with some lawmakers — Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — who offered brief questions deeply wrapped in wheezing disquisitions of GOP philosophy that went on for many minutes. “I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with,” the president said at one point, to Hensarling.
But Obama won the match, largely because of the frankness of his message about message. “We've got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together because our constituents start believing us," he said. "So, just a tone of civility, instead of slash-and-burn, would be helpful."
The lawmakers knew they were outpointed by Obama’s cool but relentless jabs and parries. The blogosphere checked in, and the TV punditburo, to confirm what anyone watching already knew: It was on the whole a Kum Bah Yah drive-by; a smashmouth performance, one that Obama deftly made seem almost collegial; and an emotional shot in the arm for Democrats weary of Republican demonizing.
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Later we found out how effective Obama’s appearance really was: when it was all over, some Republicans expressed regret that they let it be televised. The obvious question is Why? Why would the GOP regret the transparency, open dialogue and frank exchanges that characterized the Q&A on Friday? What do they have to hide?
It’s that reflexive secretive, defensive GOP stance on every major issue that was obvious on Friday. The questions/position papers by Pence and Chaffetz, their towering and incorrect assumptions, point to a party hellbent on blocking or weakening Democratic legislative reforms by every means possible.
By the end, though, even the leadership made nice. “It was the kind of discussion that we frankly need to have more of,” said House Republican Whip Eric Kantor.
“I'm having fun, this is great,” Obama said when Pence asked if he could take more questions.
“So are we,” Pence said.
True as that may be, Obama had more big fun on Friday than the elephant gang did. The president used this unexpected but welcome opportunity to school Republicans on the need to cut back on partisanship and own up to the fact that, for the next three years, a Democrat is driving much of the national debate. Like it or not.
How far they’ll reach across the aisle, or whether they will at all, is anyone’s guess. But the GOP should be chastened by the principal revelation of Friday: The president is on to them. He knows what the Republicans are doing and how they’re doing it, and he knows how fighting a schoolyard antagonist is much the same as dealing with a willfully obstructionist political opposition: Often, the best way to confront a bully armed with anger and misinformation is to be a bully armed with common sense.
Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza, The White House.