Obama heads into the lion’s den

President Obama was all smiles after his meeting with House Republicans yesterday.
President Obama was all smiles after his meeting with House Republicans yesterday.
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For my money, one of the most entertaining events of President Obama’s first term came in January 2010, when the president spent an hour and a half fielding questions directly from members of the House Republican caucus. Obama seemed to enjoy the give and take – the entire event was on camera – and clearly got the better end of the deal.

GOP leaders soon after decided: the next time the president does a Q&A with Republican lawmakers, it’ll be behind closed doors and away from public view. Why give Obama another chance to make GOP officials look foolish at one of their own events?

With that in mind, we can’t say with certainty exactly what was said yesterday when the president fielded questions again from House Republicans on Capitol Hill, but going over all of the available reports, we did learn a few things. For example, Obama explained that he considers deficit reduction a priority, but not his top priority.

Under the leadership of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Republicans on Tuesday introduced a budget resolution that eliminates the federal deficit within a decade through steep spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), asking the first question of Obama, sought a commitment from the president for a 10-year balanced budget.

Obama said no. “The president tactfully said ‘That’s not my priority, my priority is not slowing the recovery down and the long-term economic health of the country,’ ” Rogers said.

Obama instead talked about balancing the budget “in principle,” lawmakers said, meaning eliminating all deficits except for payments of interest on the debt.

As Dave Weigel noted, Republicans considered this ridiculous. One GOP lawmaker was incredulous, amazed that the president said “continued deficits are OK with him.”

Let’s quickly note a few things for the record. First, as a matter of economics, prioritizing economic growth and job creation in the wake of a brutal recession isn’t exactly radical policymaking. Second, the key reasons the nation has large deficits in the first place is because Republicans threw away a balanced budget, putting every penny of the price tag for two wars, two tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout on the national charge card.

And third, the House GOP budget plan unveiled by Paul Ryan a year ago had deficits running every year for the next two decades, and nearly every Republican on the Hill voted for it. So maybe they can spare us their righteous indignation about “continued deficits” in the new future.

What else did we learn?

As best as I can tell, there’s no transcript of the entire event – if someone has one, please let me know – but yesterday’s conversation also included questions on the Keystone XL oil pipeline (Obama was noncommittal), White House tours (Obama doesn’t want to furlough Secret Service officials), immigration (Obama said he doesn’t want the issue to die just so he can use it against the GOP in 2014), and contraception access (Obama listened politely).

In all, seven Republican House members asked questions, which were chosen by GOP leaders in advance.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), complained afterwards, “It didn’t change anything at all. He didn’t offer anything new.”

Well, no, I suppose that’s true. The president has a set of policies and priorities, they’re in line with the wishes of the American mainstream, and they were recently endorsed by the American electorate. Obama clearly wants to get some governing done in this Congress, and he’s making a considerable effort to reach out to Republicans directly, but the president doesn’t see the need to “change” his positions.

Rather, he’s prepared to accept concessions and meet GOP policymakers half way to reach meaningful compromises, and Obama’s hoping concerted efforts will spur Republicans to become more flexible, less dogmatic, and less intransigent.

In other words, it’s really not up to him to “offer anything new,” and I’m reasonably certain that’s not what yesterday was about.

Barack Obama and House Republicans

Obama heads into the lion's den