What we observed Friday when Obama entered the lion's den of House Republicans-only for a political retreat was classic U.S. politics at its best. Best because it was televised so we could see first hand the give and take of competing ideas.
In recent weeks I have posted columns highly disenchanted and critical of my president for his lack of leadership, specifically his failure in cajoling Congress into passing his number one priority, health care reform. After a year in office, my patience was exhausted.
Presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that the presidency is a daily learning process. I think Obama is now catching up with the curve. Little surprise, there. I always believed he was the smartest guy in the room.
He proved it Friday in a memo to his most vehement critic on Fox News, Sean Hannity, should consider -- no teleprompter.
He rattled off government data and specific details of programs faster than a computer could spit out -- with most on or close to being on mark.
He deflated what he called Republican talking points because they failed to pass what I call the smell test -- they've tried and failed in the past or fell short of what they promised.
To those in the audience who complained the Democratic leadership failed to consider their proposals, Obama told the Republicans he read them all and incorporated the best in legislation supported by the White House.
The president painted himself as a centralized, not a Bolshevik as some Republicans have alleged. That drew snickers from the group.
“I can look you in the eye and tell you we have not been obstructionists,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, a freshman from Utah, told him. Chaffetz and his cohorts resent the label "Party of No" placed on Republicans by Democrats and some members of the Obama administration. The label sprung from the fact no Republican voted for the stimulus plan and only one for the health reform bills passed by the House.
“They didn’t send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive,” Obama said. But he was tough and even defensive at times, giving no ground on policy and five times using the phrase “not true” to describe Republican statements.
The 82-minute televised session was terrific theater. We learned something from it. It's not that Obama won and the bad guys lost.
I could care less if Obama's people pulled a fast one on the GOP by insisting the session be televised. For the sake of the electorate, sessions like these should be televised regularly much like the British Parliament places the Prime Minister's feet to the fire.
What Obama accomplished Friday is only the start. It will get tougher if he can match LBJ's ramrodding Civil Rights and the Great Society down the Senate's throat. Or Reagan matching wits with Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill to salvage Social Security.
That my friends is leadership whether one likes the outcome or not.