The president traveled Friday to Baltimore, Md., to deliver a speech and answer questions at the GOP House issues conference. I was quite unsure that this was a good idea if the true interest of the president were to develop a bipartisan relationship. It would seem to me that the best way to make sure there was real discussion and dialogue would have been to engage the GOP in a closed-door session. Evidently, both the Republicans and President Obama wanted their discussion to be open to the American public.
Shining the camera lights on the president’s speech and the questions he took gave a rare glimpse into a discussion that is really quite different than one at a standard press conference. Someone even suggested that the questions were so good and detailed that perhaps the press should yield their seats to the president’s political opposition and let them ask questions at the daily briefings and press conferences.
The president not only came out swinging, but also showed that he has an in-depth knowledge of the concerns that Republicans have. He also proved that he has read their legislation. President Obama took the jobs program and the stimulus package head on and was able to quote a current CNN poll saying “Americans disapprove of stimulus but like every policy in it.” President Obama then said, “If you broke it down into its component parts, 80 percent approved of the tax cuts, 80 percent approved of the infrastructure, 80 percent approved of the assistance to the unemployed.” The president also did not let the Republicans paint him with the job loss. He knew the numbers and was able to articulate what happened right before he took office and in the two months after. He defended the stimulus plan by quoting statistics that exposed what numbers would have been like if there had not been a stimulus package.
Always the orator, Obama was also able to poke right back at the Republicans on issues such as what happened with infrastructure money that many of us know as “shovel-ready projects.” He ribbed at the Republicans saying, “A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects you voted against.” He did not take the bait when asked if he would consider supporting across-the-board tax relief as President Kennedy did. He offered to take a look at what the Republicans were proposing and said that what they may consider to be a across-the-board tax cuts could be greater tax cuts for people who are making $1 billion. He said he might not agree to a tax cut for Warren Buffett.
The White House press corps was admonished for bringing up the issue of not having coverage of the health-care bill on C-SPAN. The president took down and hit that out of the ballpark by saying that so many of the hearings on the health-care bill were broadcast. He also stated that, as president, he took responsibility for not having structured the discussion in a way that it took place in one setting where it could have been filmed. The performance of the president made me wish he would come out daily and answer questions. Perhaps the questions would be tougher, but the answers would come directly from the horse’s mouth.
On the health-care issue, the president was well-versed. He had read H.R.3400 and said it was important to put any bill to the test. Lowering health-care premiums, tort reform and selling insurance across state lines had to really work, not just be boilerplate fixes. He also pointed out that purchasing insurance across state lines might result in cherry-picking, leading to the healthiest being able to purchase insurance and others somehow getting left out of the process.
For policy wonks and average citizens, we were treated to something that you don’t see in a presidential press conference, a State of the Union speech or in the spin room afterwards, and you certainly don’t see in the daily press briefings at the White House or in the Congress. We ought to ask for more of these, just like the British do during prime minister’s questions. That’s the time when people making the laws get to ask direct questions of the government. We saw how it worked Friday, and hopefully we’ll be fortunate to view much more of this. If at least two of our three branches of government have a lively and honest discussion, then just maybe our great democracy will become richer in the process.