President Obama spoke this afternoon to the House Republican retreat in Baltimore, turning the occasion into a lively debate, on national television, between a sitting president and the entire House caucus of the opposition party.
Obama opened by thanking House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) for the invitation: “You know what they say, keep your friends close, but visit the Republican Caucus every few months.”
During his speech, Obama went over themes from his State of the Union address this past Wednesday. At once, he simultaneously said that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on issues such as a spending freeze and tax credits for small business, but he also went after the GOP for voting against the stimulus bill while attending ribbon-cuttings for projects in their districts, challenged them to work together on important issues, and called upon them to support his proposed fees on the bailed-out financial sector.
Then came the really interesting part. Obama began taking questions from Republican members of Congress, a sight that isn’t normally seen on television in American politics.
There were some similarities to the British Parliamentary tradition of Prime Minister’s Question Time — minus the cheering and booing — with a sense of political jousting between an incumbent president and the opposition, who for their part pitched one tough question after another.
One key moment came when Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), a potential presidential candidate for 2012, used his question to attack the stimulus plan as having failed to prevent double-digit unemployment, alleged that the Republican stimulus plan would have created more jobs with less money, and asked Obama if we would embrace across the board tax cuts.
Obama said that the economy turned out to be even worse than was initially thought when the original estimates were made, and that this was from before he took office — a subtle jab at the prior Bush administration. “We had lost 650,000 jobs in December  – I’m assuming your’e not faulting my policies for that,” said Obama. “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 policies that accounted for that. We had lost another 650,000 jobs the subsequent month, before any of my policies had gone into effect,t so I’m assuming that wasn’t as a consequence of our policies. That doesn’t reflect the failure of the Recovery Act.”
Obama also returned to his point of how the polls have shown that individual stimulus components are popular, but not the total plan itself — pointing out directly how this relates to GOP members of Congress. “As I said a lot of you have gone to ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against,” said Obama. “I say all this not to re-litigate the past, but it’s simply to state, the component parts of the recovery act are consistent with what many of you say are important things to do.”
“I am not an ideologue. I’m not,” Obama also said.”It doesn’t make sense if somebody could tell me you could do this cheaper and get increased results, that I wouldn’t say ‘great.’ The problem is, I couldn’t find credible economists that would back up the claims that you just made.”
Later on, Obama also said how health care reform had been demonized by the right, despite support from a wide variety of people such as Republican former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “Now you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and certainly you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much, but that’s not a radical bunch,” said Obama. “But if you were to listen to this debate, and frankly how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot — (scattered laughter, stray applause) Â — I mean, that’s how you guys presented it.”
Obama also said the Republicans had ruined their own legislative leverage, if they wanted to see their ideas incorporated into legislation, by being overly combative with the administration and agitating their own base.
“So all I’m saying is, we’ve gotta close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. I’m not suggesting that we’re gonna agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you. But if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me. The fact is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable with your own base in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve told your constituents is this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s gonna destroy America.”
At one point, Obama was asked whether he had time for more questions. “You know, I’m having fun, this is great,” Obama responded.
The combativeness continued, during a question with a very lengthy preface about spending, from Rep. Jeb Hensarling. Obama interrupted him during the preface, and also got his name wrong. “Jim (sic), I know there’s a question in there somewhere,” said Obama. “Because you’re making a whole bunch of assertions in there, half of which I disagree with, and I’m having to sit here listening to it. At some point I know you’re gonna let me answer it.”
This became what could be the first publicly-held President’s Question Time, and Obama was quick on his feet. Will something like this happen again?
Late Update. Here’s some video from the event.