The Bigger Picture
Published on February 11th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
During his State of the Union address, President Obama challenged the Republicans in Congress to stop opposing every proposal he made to address America’s problems and start taking some responsibility for governing the country by supporting those proposals that were essential to running the federal government. The next day President Obama got his response.
First the US Senate took a vote on extending the federal debt ceiling, a normally routine vote that is required annually to ensure that America doesn’t default on its sovereign debt. Every single Republican in the US Senate voted no. This was despite the fact that during the eight years that President Bush was in office they had routinely voted in favor of this annual measure.
Then the Senate took a vote on a bill that requires the US Congress to “pay as you go” by not passing any new legislation that isn’t paid for by cutting expenses elsewhere in the national budget. Once again every single Republican Senator voted no even though in the past they had voted in favor of other unfunded Bush proposals like the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Finally, a large number of Republican Senators spent the rest of the day rattling global financial markets by voicing their opposition to President Obama’s nomination of Ben Bernanke for a second term as the Chairman of the world’s largest central bank, the US Federal Reserve. Some of them justified their opposition by saying they didn’t think Bernanke would be politically independent since Obama was the one nominating him. Frankly, it’s beyond me how they could oppose such an obviously bi-partisan nomination with a straight face given the fact that all but one of these 18 Republicans who later voted against Bernanke had actually voted for him four years earlier when former President George Bush first nominated Bernanke for the post.
Only two days earlier these same Republican Senators had also voted en-masse to oppose a proposal to establish a bi-partisan commission to develop a plan to reduce the national debt. What was noteworthy about this particular vote was the fact that not a single one of the seven Republican Senators who had originally co-sponsored this legislation stood up and voted for it when the time came. In other words, the Republicans in Congress who justify their obstruction of President Obama’s healthcare reforms and other proposals because of the soaring national debt turned around and refused to avail themselves of a bi-partisan plan to reduce that debt.
So President Obama responded to these recalcitrant Senate Republicans by delivering another somewhat shorter speech to a smaller audience that had also been in attendance for his State of the Union address some 36 hours earlier. However the significance of this particular speech was that there were absolutely no other Democrats or Obama supporters in the room.
President Obama instead chose to enter the Republican Caucus “lion’s den”, where Republican members of the US House of Representatives gather annually to plot their legislative political strategy for the upcoming year, alone. Although former President Bush and other US Presidents had previously addressed these gatherings too, those sessions had always been closed to the press. But the night before his meeting with them, President Obama asked that his address to the Republican Caucus as well as the question and answer session that was to follow be open to both television cameras and members of the news media for the first time.
Republicans were surprised that a Democratic President would want an appearance like this in front of an obviously hostile crowd televised, but figuring they had nothing to lose in doing so, acceded to President Obama’s request. Purely by chance, I happened to go online to check the results of a CBS TV voter poll just as the President was beginning his speech to the Republican Caucus in Baltimore. Here was a Democratic President facing the slings and arrows of his most vocal political opponents with only his wit and wisdom to defend himself. A week later I must confess that I’m still amazed by what I was fortunate enough to witness that day.
In all my years of involvement in politics I have never seen such an unscripted political debate take place on national television. The President opened this 90 minute political dialog with a short speech that challenged Republicans to try to work with him for the good of the country instead of opposing him at every turn in order to enhance their re-election prospects.
Following his relatively short opening speech, President Obama then responded to a series of questions posed to him by various Congressional Republicans. What ensued was a remarkably civil but intense political debate about specific public policy issues between a sitting US President and his political opponents that rarely ever happens in the carefully choreographed world of American political television. For his part the President rejected the “socialist” labels Republicans had placed on him and his policies while Republicans likewise rejected the “obstructionists” labels given them by many Democrats.
President Obama has a natural and commanding stage presence that makes him the center of the attention of everyone present in the room including the TV cameras which were focused almost exclusively on him throughout the broadcast. Some of his Republican questioners like Representative Jeb Hensarling also stumbled by asking very long and windy questions which President Obama aptly characterized as simple political posturing instead of real questions. On the other hand President Obama’s pointed responses to every question were expressed with the self assured confidence of a person who was in command of the facts. So on both style and substance, I thought Obama came out ahead.
I thought the proceedings resembled a prime minister responding to questions from opposition members that I’ve see on TV here in Ireland. Although I know I’m not alone in hoping that there will be more exchanges like this in the future between the President and opposition party members in Congress, I also wouldn’t bet on it.