A Baltimore city bus and public works dump truck block the roadway… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gus.…)
President Barack Obama engaged House Republicans in an extraordinary televised debate Friday, days after calling for a more bipartisan approach to governing.
The tone was civil, but Obama stood his ground as he parried some of the harshest critics of his performance as president. His Republican hosts, aware that the event was being beamed live from a Baltimore hotel, went out of their way to show deference and largely pulled their punches.
"You know, I'm having fun," Obama said, to laughter, when asked if he had time for more questions. "This is great."
If the session was rare by the standards of American politics - and it was - it didn't rise to the level of question time in the British House of Commons, where opposition politicians hurl barely disguised insults at the prime minister. In the ballroom of an Inner Harbor hotel, Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who loudly called the president a liar at a joint session of Congress last year, was never heard from.
To occasional grumbling from the Republican assemblage, Obama maintained that he was not an ideologue and had repeatedly incorporated their ideas into his initiatives.
Obama insisted that the differences between the two major parties are much narrower than they are often made out to be. At the same time, he was repeatedly critical, sometimes sharply so, in deploring what he described as a Republican desire to "score political points" at the cost of better government in opposing his policies.
Obama said that Republicans have attacked his agenda as "some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives." As a result, he added, "you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me."
In line with his remarks about partisanship in Wednesday night's State of the Union address, Obama said Democrats and Republicans were both to blame for demonizing the opposition party - typically to satisfy more extreme elements of the left or right. That is one of the reasons, he added, that it has gotten tougher to actually get things done in Washington.
"I think both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill," he said, after hearing repeated criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's style of leadership.
The 178 Republican congressmen and women, out of power in the House and lacking the leverage that Senate rules give Republican senators, have become the stepchildren of today's Washington politics. Largely shut out of legislative deal-making in the Democratic House, they protest that their policy alternatives have been routinely ignored. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio presented a copy of the Republican election-year policy manual, "Better Solutions," to the president, who reacted to the title with a broad grin.
Obama tried to address the Republicans' overall complaint, mentioning a list of their ideas that he said he'd already adopted. He said that not only does he study Republican proposals in detail, he reads the substance of Republican legislation, even if he ultimately decides to reject it.
At the 90-minute luncheon, the high point of a three-day Republican retreat at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, Obama was generous in giving the Republicans both his time and personal attention. After delivering an opening speech, he took their questions for more than an hour, much longer than scheduled. Then he stayed to shake hands and pose for pictures with the congressmen and their families.
While inviting the Republicans to challenge his ideas, he also confronted theirs and wasn't shy about criticizing their actions. Pointedly accusing Republicans of what amounted to hypocrisy, he openly questioned the motivation behind their opposition to his economic stimulus plan, which received no Republican votes in the House.
"A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against," he said. "If there's uniform opposition because the Republican caucus doesn't get 100 percent or 80 percent of what you want, then it's going to be hard to get a deal done."
Rep. Jason Chafetz, a freshman Republican from Utah, stood and told Obama, "I can look you in the eye and tell you, we have not been obstructionist."
The president defended at length his embattled health-care overhaul plan. He described it as "pretty centrist," arguing that it was "pretty similar" to a plan put forward by two former Republican leaders, Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and former Democratic leader Tom Daschle.
"Frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot," Obama said, to laughter. "That's how you guys presented it."
At another point, he sought to ally himself with Republicans against a common enemy: the news media. "The problems we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn style politics," the president said.