President Obama traveled to Baltimore today to address a meeting of the House Republicans. You can read the New York Times report here. The meeting was definitely positive for Obama: he was able to tout his willingness to work with the opposition; he was, as usual, thoughtful in his speech and tone; and he had plenty of time, as usual, to blame Republicans for closed-minded obstinacy. A few of his Republican interlocutors made him look like Socrates in comparison. The State of the Union address made Obama look small. This meeting made him look large-hearted and in command--at least for the moment.
But Obama wasn't the only winner. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the young, pleasant, wonky member of the House Budget and Ways & Means Committees, saw his stock rise today, as well. Obama and Ryan engaged in a detailed, serious, good-faith debate over future spending and the Wisconsin congressman's Roadmap for America's Future. The result was something I never thought I'd see: compelling daytime television.
You can read Paul Ryan's recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal here. Ryan has a big idea--major reform of the American welfare state. (If anything, the idea is too ambitious; our political system likes incremental reform!) He's a pro-life, limited government conservative from a district the president won in 2008. He's got charisma and smarts. Why do I think this wasn't the last time we'll see Ryan and Obama debate?
Update, 3:51 p.m.: A reader writes:
While your point that our political system likes incremental reform is true most of the time, it’s not true all of the time. In some very important cases, like the Civil Rights Act or Welfare Reform Act of 1996, there are major, not incremental pieces of legislation that get passed. However, it takes a long time to get major reform bills through for the reason that the system is designed in good measure to get a national consensus about such matters rather than a simple ruling majority. However, the big bills do happen if a sufficient amount of pressure builds and a national consensus is reached…then they tend to happen in a rush. So, in this case, if the country retains a sustained sense that the fiscal health of the country is out of whack and it might remain so unless something significant is done, then, Ryan actually does have a chance to move things along in a major way.
Point taken! This also brings to mind a lesson from the health care debate: Obama did not lose on this issue because he failed to explain his goals effectively. He lost because he lacked a consensus behind his proposed reforms. Indeed, health care reform wasn't even high on the list of public priorities.