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Posted by on Jan 30, 2010 in At TMV | 38 comments

Obama’s Debate With House Republicans: A Game Changer (or Not)? (FULL VIDEO)

Was President Barack Obama’s meeting with House Republicans at their retreat on Friday a “game changer,” a sign of things to come — or will it prove as much as a flash in the pan as when Jimmy Carter won over the nation (briefly) by wearing a sweater during his speeches? And could it be that this kind of television event could become a new kind of political event in 21st century America? Or will it never happen again if Obama or the GOP concludes it wasn’t wise politically?

The questions before Friday were: have the Democratic party and Barack Obama after just one year yanked defeat from the jaws of the 2008 political victory and is Obama someone who could deliver a nice speech but who stubbed his toe governing and can’t effectively press his case in non-prepared speech forums? And are those (endless) teleprompter jokes true or now dated?

Here is the video of the event so you can watch it and reach your own conclusions:

Aspects of the questions listed at the top remain, but the conventional wisdom that seemingly totally wrote off the Republicans after Obama’s 2008 victory as a party that was so yesterday and that now and seems poised to write off the Democrats and Obama as being incapable of matching Republicans when it comes to other forms of political combat may have become a more complicated in light with Obama’s televised meeting with House Republicans.

Since this was an unusual event — a President of one party meeting with and confronting the House reps of the other party on live television — there was considerable interest. This meant it was run live and also rerun by some networks. And it meant sound bytes from the event have been played over and over on TV and cable. Meanwhile, ideologically based radio and cable talk shows have picked and played moments when the hosts trumpet the triumph of their side.

But perhaps lost in all of this is a fact: this was the closest the United States has seen in a while to the centuries old British Question Time where the Prime Minister has to take questions from an often feisty, opposition-infested British House of Commons. And although those who adore Obama will say he is wonderful in any forum, and those who hate him will say he was terrible after he utters his first word, the bottom line is: this forum was a good one for him since it bypassed the press, bypassed cable and talk show hosts while it was aired live, and generated segments where even if they were cherry picked in excerpts it would display a different, more nuanced Obama.

A key Obama theme was the need to put aside conventional wisdom media narratives, put aside re-election talking points when discussing policy (talking points are often in the eye of the partisan beholder), and engage each other on formulating solutions that can result in both sides having some bragging rights.

In increasingly-polarized 21st century America where every debate, every news story, every news cycle results in evaluations of who “won” partisans on each side will likely proclaim that their side triumphed. New and old media that rely on whipped up partisan rage for broadcast numbers and readership won’t dwell on nuance. But, in the end, both sides triumphed since the meeting was more than warmed over left and right talk radio style catch phrases and demonization. It was live, it was real and in the end it gave glimpses into each side’s world view.

Marc Ambinder summarizes it best:

The moment President Obama began his address to Republicans in Baltimore today, I began to receive e-mails from Democrats: Here’s an except from one of them: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that it took a [email protected]&$* year for Obama to step into the ring and start throwing some verbal blows… I’m definitely praying at mass on Sunday morning that this Obama doesn’t take another 12 month vacation.”

This e-mail comes from a very influential Democrat.

Accepting the invitation to speak at the House GOP retreat may turn out to be the smartest decision the White House has made in months. Debating a law professor is kind of foolish: the Republican House Caucus has managed to turn Obama’s weakness — his penchant for nuance — into a strength. Plenty of Republicans asked good and probing questions, but Mike Pence, among others, found their arguments simply demolished by the president. (By the way: can we stop with the Obama needs a teleprompter jokes?)

More than the State of the Union — or on top of the State of the Union — this may be a pivotal moment for the future of the presidential agenda on Capitol Hill.


During the presidential campaign, it was John McCain who proposed a form of the British Prime Ministers’ questions for the president. It was derided as a gimmick. This is no gimmick. I have not seen a better and perhaps more productive political discussion in this country in…a long time. 90 minutes worth.

Ambinder has another gem: a twitter by a GOPer who says Obama lectured them but she got his autograph.
Here’s a cross section of new and old media reaction to the event:

[This is inserted in this post’s re-write]. Andrew Sullivan:

But here’s the key thing: Obama is best at this. He is best at defusing conflict; he is superb at engaging civilly with his opponents. It’s part of his legacy – I remember how many conservatives respected him at the Harvard Law Review. But he needs to do more of this, even though he may get nothing in return. Why? Because unless the tone changes, unless the pure obstructionism and left-right ding-dong cycle stops, we are on a fast track to catastrophe.

That was the core message of Obama in the election. It was one of my core reasons for backing him over Clinton – because he has the capacity to reach out this way. I remain depressed at the prospects for a breakthrough, but this was good politics and good policy. More, please. Do this every month. Maybe over the long haul, the poison of the past has to be worked through with Obama as therapist in chief.

New York Daily News:

President Obama and House Republicans engaged in a dialogue Friday that was extraordinary for being both public and civil. Please, sir, can we have some more?

In an age when Democrats and Republicans seem unable even to order sandwiches off a lunch menu without finding cause for rancorous attacks (You had Russian dressing, you Commie!), Obama and a succession of GOP questioners went back and forth on health care, jobs, the deficit and more.

The Republicans challenged; Obama defended. The exchanges were blunt, candid and most, important, substantive.

In short, everyone acted like an adult. They talked to each other as people, not pinatas.

Divides were clear, but there were also glimpses of paths to compromise on at least some important issues.

At the best moments, the discussion focused on practicalities rather than on political ideology – and the participants looked forward rather than at settling scores or assigning blame.

Dallas Morning News:

With mocking seasoned with a bit of contrition, President Barack Obama spent an extraordinary hour Friday on live TV answering questions from House Republicans in an effort to tone down the rancor.

He wooed them by acknowledging he fell short on a promise to make health care negotiations transparent, but he also chastised them for painting his plans as some sort of “Bolshevik plot.”

He vowed to pay closer attention to their ideas, but he dressed down Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling for his comments on the budget deficit.

“You’re making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with,” Obama told Hensarling

Their tart exchange exposed a fundamental rift even as it showcased how unusual the session was.

U.S. presidents simply don’t submit to a public grilling by political rivals, and the 80-minute appearance at a House GOP retreat in Baltimore evoked the British-style prime minister “Question Time” more than any American ritual.

“I’m a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity,” Obama said.

The Republicans were not moved off their skepticism. But it remains to be seen whether Obama bought himself much maneuvering room.

Baltimore Sun:

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.

McClatchy Newspapers:

Before the session, the White House and House Republicans promised that Obama’s visit would produce a frank dialogue and, hopefully, usher in a more civil, bipartisan tone, which largely has been largely absent in the past year’s debates.

Instead, the one-hour, 45-minute dialogue seemed to produce olive branches adorned by a few thorns and to showcase just how wide and deep the divide is between the administration and other Democrats and the Republicans in Congress.

“There were different views of facts and figures,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. “But I think we had facts on our side and he [Obama] was a little on the defensive.”

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said that Obama’s talk showed that the president had a “willingness to dismiss reality. He’s willing to hold himself unconstrained by the truth.”

Obama began the session warmly and joked about attending the retreat because of a need to “keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months.”

He grew stern and testy at times, however, as he disputed some of the details lawmakers cited in their questions about healthcare, the economic stimulus and the federal debt.

On healthcare, Obama said that some of the provisions in the Democratic bill had been embraced by a bipartisan group that included former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Tom Daschle, D-N.D., and Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

“That’s not a radical bunch,” the president said. “But if you were to listen to the debate and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.”

Obama elicited snickers from Republicans in the hotel ballroom when he proclaimed, “I am not an ideologue.”

The president acknowledged problems in the crafting of the healthcare bill, calling it a “messy process.”

Republicans got a little testy, too

CBS News’ Bob Schieffer doesn’t think it’s a game changer:

But CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer doubted Mr. Obama’s olive branch was the game changer the White House had hoped.

“I thought it might at least be a game-starter,” Schieffer told CBS “Evening News” Anchor Katie Couric Friday night. “There was a totally different tone than what we’ve been seeing around here for the last few months.”

But an hour before Schieffer appeared on Friday’s broadcast of CBS’ “Evening News,” he received something that made him change his mind.

“The House Republican leaders’ office put out a scathing press release,” Schieffer said. “It was titled ‘President Obama Repeats Discredited Talking Points During Dialogue with the House G.O.P.’ So I guess we’re back to square one.”

Taylor Marsh:

Every single person who has refused to give Pres. Obama a pass on his lack of leadership, inability to get beyond platitudes and speeches, as well as pushing him to engage in a transparent way beyond slogans, was finally served substance today, with Obama actually delivering it. Pres. Obama’s engagement with Republicans was an unprecedented performance. It also has the potential to be a game changer.

The Republicans did their best, but their talking points were predicated on lack of transparency, and missing honesty and facts. It’s a terrible use of a remarkable opportunity for politicians not to rise to the occasion given. Though they get huge credit for opening this up to C-SPAN, which has the entire Q&A session.

…It was the most remarkable day of Obama’s presidency to date.

And some Republican is going to pay for it, because they can’t afford to let Obama do this again.

Atlas Shrugs:

Am I the only one who found today’s giant press fest of Obama’s drop into the Republicans’ retreat gratuitous and hysterical?

In an administration famous for its polarizing partisanship, its thuggish non-negotiating posture and its demonization of anyone who disagrees, Obama deigned to talk to Republicans today. Yes, it’s true. It’s true! And it was such a huge deal, so out of the box, that the entire exchange was given full court press. That’s right, so rare is any non-statist inclusion that the whole GOP-Obama meet up was aired (question and answer) live on cable news channels.

I think this is Obama’s first and only act of transparency. Rest assured that you’ll be hearing about how the prince generously met with Republicans for the next three years (thanks, in large part, to the Brown and recent Gubernatorial rout):

Responding to a series of pre-cooked questions from Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore today, President Obama called bulls— er, Bolshevik, on many of their objections.

My DD:

Our politics is too often a zero-sum game. Today the President made the case that it need not always be that way. It was his finest hour.

Hot Air’s Allahpundit:

This wasn’t supposed to be televised, incidentally, but both sides agreed to it at the last minute in the name of showing the public how bipartisan they are. The GOP figured it’d give them a platform to prove that they actually do have policy ideas of their own, but I think the format ended up benefiting Obama more than them. He was on camera the whole time; he did most of the talking; he got to show that he’s perfectly capable of extemporaneous debate even with multiple prepared challengers lobbing questions. (Which should have been clear after 20+ debates in 2008, but the TOTUS jokes have taken on a life of their own.) Even conservatives I follow on Twitter were saying that he seemed more appealing in this format than in his thousand speeches last year. Who knows? Maybe that means we’ll see more of this.

Trey Ellis on the Huffington Post:

With his performance today the president seems to finally get that projecting strength reads as projecting leadership. He needs to keep it up. He needs to open up a rapid-response desk in the White House (some intern glued to FOX, aka GOP-TV 24/7) so that the moment one of them spouts, “government takeover of health care,” or “death panel,” somebody goes on air and with wit but force calls them liars and tells them to sit down and shut up.

He was AWOL most of the fall and started to lose control of his presidency. Let’s hope he’s learned his lesson and will come out of the Oval Office much more often, reminding working Americans that he’s their full-time lobbyist. They are his special interest.

Right Pundits:

The rounded curve of his full-bodied chin drops, punctuating the incontrovertible statement. Eyebrows raise as he shrugs his shoulders to slough away the plausibility….The One has returned. Oh, but now he’s also Daniel. Tomorrow he’ll be Moses. There’s no end to the man’s rebukes reaching Biblical proportions. Forget health care. He’ll just touch the lame and they will walk, heading straight to the polls to vote Democrat in the mid-terms….

….Even GOP aides, taking their cues from someone other than me, are saying it was a mistake to allow cameras in the meeting.

All is lost. We knew all it would take for the public to once again genuflect at a bobblehead doll of The One would be another speech. If he could only scold anyone who disagrees with him and demand they cease their dissent, the American public would turn that frown upside down.

These people need to get out more.

What Obama and his minions are proving today, yet again, is their complete disconnect with the tone and frustration of the American public. And sadly, any GOP who thought another O speech could affect voters isn’t getting it either.

…..So forget the Bolshevik plot. I think it’s more like a Dictator complex.

Alan Colmes:

President Obama spoke at a Republican House retreat in Baltimore, and did so well that the one GOPer said it was a “mistake” allowing the “cameras to roll like that.” He told them they can’t tell their constituents the president is doing all kinds of crazy things if they seriously want bipartisanship, saying “You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion. Because, what you’ve been telling your constituents is: this guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that is going to destroy America.”

Sadly, No:

At they very least, he put the teleprompter joke to rest forever.

I would absolutely like to see more of this, and not in a partisan way. I’d like to see the opposition get smarter for the next one, knowing as they do now that if they aren’t, they’ll get a well-deserved ass-kicking. Thoughts?

Pam’s House Blend:

Here’s the thing: President Obama held an open Q&A- no holds barred, cameras rolling and the whole thing available to be broadcast live.

Sidenote: can you even imagine Dubya doing that with the Dems? Yeah, ME NEITHER.

This should have been the golden opportunity that the GOP has been waiting for- FauxNews anchors should have been wiping drool off their CHINS.

Instead, someone at FoxNews inexplicably and with no warning to viewers or the anchors, pulled the sound feed.

Yup! They denied their audience the opportunity to hear the President answer the GOP questions.

-The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein:

The line on Obama is that he needs a teleprompter to speak clearly. But his messaging in today’s back-and-forth was far better and far clearer than in any recent speech I’ve seen him give

The Lonely Conservative:

I don’t know if you caught Obama’s talk with House Republicans earlier, if not you missed an amusing back and forth. That is, if you enjoy watching a grown man lie through his teeth…He didn’t directly answer the questions he was asked and went on the political attack, blamed Bush a little more and forgot his party controlled Congress after 2006.

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