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Obama spars with GOP in no-holds-barred debate

By Daniel Tencer
Friday, January 29, 2010 15:24 EDT
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UPDATE AT BOTTOM: Fox News cut live feed of Obama debate half-way through; GOP aides say allowing cameras was a ‘mistake’

A combative President Obama sparred back and forth with Republicans at a House GOP retreat in Baltimore Friday, telling House members they had backed themselves into a corner by painting his administration as being radical.

It was an unusual question-and-answer session that some observers have compared to Question Period in the British House of Commons, when the prime minister takes questions from opposition lawmakers. And even some conservative commentators admit Obama won the debate and gave himself a much-needed image boost.

Invited by the GOP to attend their annual conference, the president accepted but surprised Republicans with a request to allow cameras into the conference room, Politico reports. The GOP agreed.

Weaving between pleas for bipartisanship and direct criticism of GOP politicking, the president took Republicans to task for voting against last year’s stimulus package and then attending “ribbon cuttings” for projects funded by it.

“A lot of you have gone to ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against,” Obama said. “I say all this not to re-litigate the past, but it’s simply to state, the component parts of the recovery act are consistent with what many of you say are important things to do.”

Obama touched repeatedly on the theme that, in opposing his policies, Republicans at times oppose things that are in line with their ideology. Among those things, Obama argued, are his proposed fee on banks and a freeze on discretionary spending.

“Join me” in passing the spending freeze, Obama asked the GOP, adding there’s “nothing in this proposal that runs contrary to the ideological predisposition of this caucus.”

On the proposed bank fee, designed to recoup some of the money the US government lost in bailing out the banks in 2008, Obama told House Minority Leader John Boehner: “If you listen to the American people, John, they’ll tell you they want their money back.”

And in very frank language, Obama warned the GOP they are painting themselves into a political corner by using strong rhetoric in opposing White House ideas.

“If the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me,” the president said. “The fact is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable with your own base in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve told your constituents is this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s gonna destroy America.”

The president also chastised Republicans for presenting health care reform as “some Bolshevik plot.” But he spent a considerable amount of time arguing for bipartisanship, and for his own credentials as an open-minded leader who can work across party lines.

“I am not an ideologue,” Obama said, adding, “These are serious times and what’s required of all us is to do what’s right for our country even if it’s not best for our politics. … There may be better things than poll numbers.”

Even some conservative commentators conceded that Obama won the day.

“Obama did well, got the better of GOP today,” the Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb tweeted. “Fortunately, we got the better of him the last six months or so. And health care is dead.”

Daniel Foster at the National Review argued it made both sides look good.

“It would be hard to argue the exchange is anything but a plus-plus for Obama and the GOP,” he wrote. “Both sides emerged from it looking as if, contra the public’s greatest fears, they are serious about the deficit and health-care reform. … [T]he Republicans went a long way toward showing that they are hardly a party of obstructionists with no solutions to offer Americans.”

UPDATE: Some commentators are pointing to the fact that Fox News cut off the live feed of Obama’s debate half-way through as proof that the president got the better of the GOP on Friday.

“Perhaps the most telling aspect of the speech reactions,” writes David Weigel at the Washington Independent, is that “Fox News, alone among cable networks, cut away mid-broadcast and went to a newsless interview with Rep. Peter King (R-NY).”

NBC’s Luke Russert offered more evidence that at least the GOP views it as a loss for their side.

“GOP aides telling me it was a mistake to allow cameras into Obama’s QA with GOP members,” Russert tweeted Friday. “Allowed BO to refute GOP for 1.5 hours on TV.”

This video is from MSNBC, broadcast Jan. 29, 2008.

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