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Obama Takes Questions: A Wrap-Up

3:20 PM, Jan 29, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The video is here. It's worth watching.

Obama Takes Questions: A Wrap-Up

Highlights: "I'm not an ideologue." Obama's stunning math error. Obama acknowledging "failure on my part is to foster communications even when there are disagreements." Obama calling Rep. Jeb Hensarling, "Jim, with all due respect." Lack of self-awareness when talking about GOP plans: "That's an idea (fixing health care) we all embrace, but specifically it's got to work." Obama: My health-care bill was "centrist" and some in GOP framed it as a "Bolshevik plot."

I worry about what a tradition such as this one would beget in the standards for future presidential candidates. It would certainly greatly favor a professorial, debate-centric president, perhaps at the expense of other leaderships skills. Obama is pretty well suited to it, for instance. But, as a person who spends a lot of time watching the president drone on, I much prefer this lively exchange.

The president was very good in this environment—better, in fact, than he often is with his Teleprompters. Much of the rhetoric was classic Obama— "we need to be careful what we say to each other," "you can't be against every bill if there's stuff in it that you like"— and just as disingenuous as usual, but the setting (saying it to their faces, if you will) was effective. 

The evening news clips will undoubtedly be of Obama skewering the GOP. But the overall impression the event gave was that Obama was reaching out and looking good doing it, but also that the GOP is not quite what he and his administration have painted it as for a year.

It pin-pricked some stereotypes on both sides. It seemed a rather humble move for the president to come before the House GOP for questions on TV in the first place. After all, he hasn't consented to such an event with the press since July. It looked like a transparent move for both sides.

And, despite the scrambling to declare that Obama "won" this event, it's not a net loss for Mike Pence and Paul Ryan to take on the president on the facts of health care and entitlements, in person. Ryan, in particular, is soaked in the details of his and Democratic proposals. I'd welcome a televised debate between just him and Obama.

The president's confession that he "read your bills," may be the first time many Americans are informed that the GOP has health-care bills of any kind, and that they are substantial enough to warrant the attention of the president.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) had quite a good moment in the sun when he politely declared himself a House freshman who objects to the title of "obstructionist." He went on to say that he applauded the president on some of his ideas — earmark control, etc.—but that none of them came to pass. It was a sensitive way to point out what many Americans are feeling about Obama's falling short of his promises. Chaffetz is now booked on three TV shows tonight and tomorrow morning, incidentally.

And, when's the last time you saw a House GOP press conference carried live on the cable new channels, as it was today after the president's Q&A?

Frankly, it's debatable how much such a back-and-forth can really accomplish, but the tangible appearance of change and openness probably would have benefited Obama much more if he'd tried it earlier. The press was raving about the decision to put the event on TV, and even the hardest-line partisans were at risk of looking like party-poopers if they criticized it. Imagine the reaction had he undertaken this kind of event as his first reach across the aisle on health care, back when he was still in his honeymoon phase.

After the event, Rep. John Boehner and Pence wisely avoided partisan barbs, despite the fact that Obama gave his standard lecture about name-calling while barely acknowledging his side's part in it. Boehner was asked whether he had anything to say about the presidents' and Democrats' name-calling, and replied, "Well, I don't want to exacerbate the problem we're trying to fix. This was a great first step." (That was transcribed while watching TV, so please forgive inaccuracies.)

Pence turned the president's advice back on Obama by saying, "We welcome the president, & we particularly welcome that the 'Party of No' idea can hopefully be banished once & for all from the political debate."

It will be interesting to see how Robert Gibbs, who does the dirty work of partisan sniping every day while the president stays cleaner, handles questions about the Q&A. There's already a media verdict forming that Obama "won" the event, which is just the kind of coverage Obama cited as an impediment to doing such events in the first place. The media is dealing with the reality of politics, which does have winners and losers, but Obama's rhetoric makes it tricky for Gibbs to revel in the storyline. Gibbs has a way of quickly dispelling any 2008-style Obama glow the president is able to muster these days. We'll see what approach he takes tomorrow.

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