Obama in the Republican lions’ den: Obama, 2; lions, 1

President Obama had a pointed and entertaining exchange with House Republicans. The event worked to his advantage, but the GOP scored important points, too. Everybody benefits from this kind of unscripted public debate.

By , Staff writer

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    House minority whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, flanked by House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, listened as President Obama took questions from Republican lawmakers at the GOP House Issues Conference in Baltimore on Friday.
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President Obama walked into the lions’ den Friday and came out with limbs still in place. In fact, to many who watched the spectacle, the lions were left sulking and hungry.

This was the GOP House Issues Conference in Baltimore, to which Obama had been invited as a guest speaker. And to those who watched, it was high political drama – very much like the weekly “Questions to the Prime Minister” sessions in the British House of Commons, an energetic and entertaining debate on policy matters that is unscripted, unrehearsed, and there for all the world to watch on live TV.

As the Monitor’s Dave Cook reported, the interchange was lively, civil, and substantive.

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Questions were asked respectfully (for the most part), although some questioners took long minutes of speechifying to get there. As in the House of Commons, the questions were blunt and sometimes pointed. But Obama came right back at them, citing chapter and verse from legislation and nonpartisan government reports, appearing to be at his wonkish best.

“I’m having fun,” he said at one point.

Pitch for bipartisanship

As he has from the beginning, Obama made his pitch for working across party lines. But he chided the Republican lawmakers for making that difficult if not impossible.

“What happens is that you guys don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me,” Obama said. “The fact of the matter is, many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party . . . because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.’ “

Liberal score-keepers were ecstatic. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Chris Matthews gave the president’s performance an enthusiastic six thumbs-up.

“The whole thing basically went like [this],” Mike Madden wrote at Salon. “Republican asks obnoxious question rooted in Glenn Beck-ian talking points; Obama swats it away, makes the questioner look silly, and then smiles at the end. It got so bad, in fact, that Fox News cut away from the event before it was over.”

Republican disadvantage

To be fair, Republicans were at a disadvantage to start with.

Despite his drop in the polls, his first-year mistakes, a resurgent GOP, and the pot-stirring tea party movement, Obama remains personally popular and still has star quality. The venue worked in his favor, and behind the scenes some Republicans wondered whether allowing the event to be televised (at the White House’s request) was a mistake.

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

And yet, GOP House members were able to make the point that they have in fact offered ideas and proposed legislation on key issues – a point Obama conceded.

“It was striking to me that during the president’s Q&A the president repeatedly acknowledged that House Republicans have solutions,” Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote at the National Review Online. “This runs contrary to the party of ‘no’ meme. Anyone who tries to continue it, should have to watch this again. That includes the president.”

'Rhetoric versus reality'

After the get-together, House Minority Leader John Boehner quickly put out a press release titled “Rhetoric vs. Reality: President Obama Repeats Discredited Talking Points During Dialogue with House GOP.”

Republican lawmakers in their minority position as the loyal opposition, have a tough time to start with. Their main beef – especially in the House – is with the Democratic leadership.

“It’s really up to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Majority Leader [Steny] Hoyer to carry through,” Boehner told Politico.com. “I think the president will carry through in terms of having more meetings with us, having more discussions with us, but there’s got to be more than just discussions.”

Still, Friday’s event – historic as well as entertaining – was a good thing whatever your political inclinations.

“It was the kind of discussion, frankly, we need to have more of,” said Republican Whip Eric Cantor.

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