Saturday, January 30, 2010

o captain!

whenever a leader faces a crisis of confidence, it often takes an extraordinary demonstration of the very qualities that originally inspired confidence to reinvigorate one's demoralized troops. such was president obama's friday trip into the lion cage — at the invitation of the lions.

the daring and unlikely high-wire animal-taming act seems to have thrilled the crowds for the time being. it most certainly thrilled the press:

mike madden @ salon:

obama's trip to the retreat started off slowly, with a speech that could have worked almost anywhere with only a few edits ahead of time. and then the question-and-answer session got started, and the event turned into a spectacle, the kind of thing that hasn't been seen in american politics in years — and probably won't again, once the people responsible for putting it together go back to look at the video. (which is too bad, because nbc does have an opening for a 10 p.m. show, and this was a lot more watchable than leno.) rarely has his administration done such a good job of bluntly underscoring the differences between what obama wants to do and what republicans would prefer if they had power. the president was funny and disarming, but he defended his policies fiercely, and he tiptoed up to the line of calling republicans liars to their faces ...

the whole thing basically went like that: 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. democratic operatives around washington watching it had pretty much the same reaction: "where the hell has this guy been?"

mark ambinder @ the atlantic:

obama's question time: an amazing moment

the moment president obama began his address to republicans in baltimore today, i began to receive e-mails from democrats: here's an except from one of them: "i don't know whether to laugh or cry that it took a f$$@&$* year for obama to step into the ring and start throwing some verbal blows... i'm definitely praying at mass on sunday morning that this obama doesn't take another 12 month vacation."

this e-mail comes from a very influential democrat.

accepting the invitation to speak at the House GOP retreat may turn out to be the smartest decision the white house has made in months. debating a law professor is kind of foolish: the republican house caucus has managed to turn obama's weakness — his penchant for nuance — into a strength. plenty of republicans asked good and probing questions, but mike pence, among others, found their arguments simply demolished by the president. (by the way: can we stop with the obama needs a teleprompter jokes?)

... republicans may have wished they had spoken to john mccain about what happened to him in the presidential debates before they decided to broadcast this session. the president looked genuinely engaged, willing to discuss things. democrats believe that he tossed away the GOP talking points and lack of real plans into a bludgeon against them. "the whole question was structured by a talking point," he told jeb hensarling. obama took the blame for not living up to some of his promises on transparency in health care negotiations. he displayed a familiarity with republican proposals that seemed to astonish those who asked questions of him. and at the end, republicans rushed up to him, pens and photo cameras in hands, wanting autographs and pictures.

mused one mid-level white house official: "this really is the best thing we've done in a long, long time".

ezra klein @ the washington post:

obama's Q&A session with the house republicans was transfixing. what should have been a banal exchange of talking points was actually a riveting reminder of how rarely you hear actual debate — which is separate from disagreement — between political players.

this was a surprise. the session was clearly proposed so that obama could appear to be taking real steps to reach out to republicans. that implied warm feelings and a studied unwillingness to cause offense. but that was not the event we just saw. instead, obama stood at a podium for an hour and hammered his assailants. that makes it sound partisan and disrespectful. but it wasn't. it was partisan, but respectful.

there's a value in proving that you understand the other side's ideas deeply enough to disagree with them. and that was the message of obama's session. not that the republicans were right. but that he'd looked hard enough at their ideas to realize they were wrong.

... amazed that obama knows offhand that ryan wants medicare vouchers. more amazed he can explain it offhand. this is a command performance.

yesterday, i interviewed david axelrod and was struck by his inability to explain how the white house would highlight the the difference between disagreement and obstruction. today's session, if it becomes a regular event rather than a one-off, provided part of the answer. he'll debate them directly. but that may be tough to do. republicans are already spreading the word that they made a mistake allowing cameras into the event. apparently, transparency sounds better in press releases than it does in practice.

but if this is to be the last of these we see for a while, make sure to take the time and watch it, or read the transcript. it's some of the best political television i've seen in memory.

steve benen @ the washington monthly:

i'm reasonably certain i've never seen anything like it. GOP house members were fairly respectful of the president, but pressed him on a variety of policy matters. the president didn't just respond effectively, he delivered a rather powerful, masterful performance.

it was like watching a town-hall forum where all of the questions were confrontational, but obama nevertheless just ran circles around these guys. i can only assume caucus members, by the end of the Q&A, asked themselves, "whose bright idea was it to invite the president and let him embarrass us on national television?".

note, however, that this wasn't just about political theater — it was an important back-and-forth between the president and his most forceful political detractors. they were bringing up routine far-right talking points that, most of the time, simply get repeated in the media unanswered. but in baltimore, the president didn't just respond to the nonsense, he effectively debunked it.

republicans thought they were throwing their toughest pitches, and obama — with no notes, no teleprompter, and no foreknowledge — just kept knocking 'em out of the park.

it's easy to forget sometimes just how knowledgeable and thoughtful obama can be on matters of substance. i don't imagine the house republican caucus will forget anytime soon — if the president is going to use their invitation to score big victories, he probably won't be invited back next year.

nevertheless, the white house should schedule more of these. a lot more of these.

matt yglesias @ think progress:

it was sort of like prime minister’s questions and it revealed, simply put, that barack obama is a lot smarter and better-informed than his antagonists. a lot. he very calmly and coolly dismantled them.

to me, personally, it’s not a surprise. i debated policy with mike pence once and the guy is a stone-cold idiot. that was a years ago and i’ve been surprised since then to learn that conservatives consider him an unusually sharp policy mind and i take leading rightwingers at their word about that. but it’s the kind of thing that i think most americans aren’t aware of. obama knows what he’s talking about. a lot of the members of congress you see on TV all the time talking smack don’t. that’s not always clear to people since the TV anchors interviewing them usually also don’t know what they’re talking about. judd gregg’s whining freakout on MSNBC yesterday punctured the illusion of calm confidence and so did obama’s back-and-forth.

richard adams @ the guardian:

obama eats republicans' lunch

... i think we can confidently predict this is the last time the republicans invite the president to a similar format. indeed, because the hall the republicans are holding their event seemed to have just a single TV camera, obama literally took the spotlight away. republican questioners showed up as shadowy figures, and when caucus leader mike pence kicked off the republican questions at first he couldn't be heard at all.

at the end, shaking hands with the president, pence's face looked as if he'd sucked a lemon for an hour — and in a way he had.

... the net effect is that obama looked serious, reasonable and intelligent. the republicans got to sound like whiners, complaining about various pet peeves and chewing over their old laundry list of tax cuts and opposition".

jed lewison @ daily kos:

check out this video of fox news bailing out on president obama's Q&A session with more than 20 minutes left to go.

now if that ain't evidence that president obama cleaned the GOP's clock ... well, then i don't know what is.

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