BALTIMORE – In an unprecedented town hall meeting, President Barack Obama went toe-to-toe Friday with some of his fiercest critics – a ballroom-full of House Republicans – accusing them of derailing his health care overhaul while they complained about being shut out of the political process.
The president’s appearance at the annual retreat for House Republicans was intended to be a gesture of bipartisanship. Instead, it devolved into a respectful, but still surprisingly blunt exercise in political finger-pointing, defensiveness and gamesmanship.
Obama repeatedly defended his policies and accused Republicans of distorting his positions for political gain. He was especially critical of the GOP’s efforts to derail the massive health care overhaul bill in Congress.
“You’d think this was some Bolshevik plot,” Obama said. “That’s how some of you guys presented this.”
And he argued that constant political attacks on his agenda had almost robbed the GOP of any opportunity to contribute.
“What happens is that you guys don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me,” Obama said. “The fact of the matter is, many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable with your own base, with your own party, because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.’ ”
The event was notable for its departure from the norms of the American political process, resembling more the British tradition of a leader taking fire from members of the opposition party – and for the fact that it was broadcast nationally.
Like the audience on a daytime talk show, the GOP members held microphones and questioned Obama. The president answered from behind a lectern, his image displayed on large TV screens. The exchange went for 90 minutes – longer than scheduled.
“I’m having fun,” Obama said at one point.
For the most part, the Republicans held their tongues and praised the president for listening to their concerns. But when Obama maintained that “I am not an ideologue,” murmurs of dissent could be heard throughout the room.
“I’m not,” he repeated.
House Republicans, who have little political power because of the large Democratic majority in the chamber, were determined to use the occasion to rebut skeptics who argue that the party offers few ideas and opposes legislation out of political convenience, not principle. They handed Obama a thick document containing Republican policy proposals when he was introduced.
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, part of the GOP leadership in the House, said before the session that his party needed to show voters that “we’re ready to govern again” in advance of congressional elections this fall.
The president began by urging bipartisanship and cooperation in a manner similar to his State of the Union address Wednesday night. “I don’t believe the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security,” Obama said to a loud ovation.
Soon, however, bolstered by Friday’s news of a large spike in the nation’s gross domestic product, Obama took the audience to task for opposing his economic stimulus plan a year ago, arguing that it contained the kind of tax breaks that the GOP typically advocates. And he accused lawmakers who opposed the stimulus of taking credit in their home districts for projects that benefited from the stimulus money.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings of some of these important projects in your communities.”
He was pressed by freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah to explain why he had not followed through on his pledge that negotiations over the health care bill would be broadcast on television. Obama argued that most of the debate had in fact been aired, except for some talks close to the Senate vote.
“That was a messy process,” Obama said. “I take responsibility.”
Near the end of the session, the president pushed back firmly at Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s insistence that the administration had dramatically inflated the nation’s budget deficit, cutting off Hensarling in mid-sentence. “That whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign,” Obama charged.