Huffpost Politics

Obama On Cantor: "I'm Just A Glutton For Punishment"

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WASHINGTON — Add another job description to Barack Obama's title: facilitator in chief.

The president presided over a White House fiscal summit Monday, and showed his hand as both a policy wonk and a gracious host _ to allies and adversaries alike.

Easygoing though always in charge, Obama melded serious talk about ways to control the exploding federal deficit with frequent doses of humor and familiarity. That mix provided moments of levity that defused what could have been a tense session of finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats on a painfully dry subject _ fiscal policy.

By Washington's stuffy standards, it was a rollicking good time.

On display: a former one-term senator who clearly has grown comfortable as the country's chief executive after just one month in office.

Opening the summit, he promised to cut the skyrocketing annual budget deficit in half over four years and said he would reinstitute a pay-as-you-go rule that calls for spending reductions to match increases. He also said he would shun what he said were the past few years' of "casual dishonesty of hiding irresponsible spending with clever accounting tricks." And, he called health care reform "the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far" to the long-term solvency of Social Security.

Later, Obama set the lighter tone as he stood at the podium in the auditorium-like room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to close out the hours-long summit. He said he heard everyone had enjoyed it. "It's a sign of something," the grinning president said _ and readily agreed when someone suggested "illness."

He then proceeded to call on Democrats, Republicans, economists, business representatives and union leaders, inviting questions and comments. He referred to the group generally as "you guys" and casually addressed even the most senior lawmaker by first name.

The Democrat very purposely started with, perhaps, the unlikeliest of all people _ the Republican he vanquished in last fall's election, John McCain.

"You know, he and I had some good debates about these issues," Obama said _ an understatement to be sure and one that drew laughter. He also praised the Arizona senator as "extraordinarily consistent and sincere about these issues."

"Well, thank you, Mr. President," McCain said and quickly delved into the issue of cost overruns on large government buys. "Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One."

Using the opportunity to talk of a purchasing process "gone amok," Obama said he had ordered a thorough review of his new fleet of Marine One helicopters.

"The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me," Obama said wryly, inciting more laughter. "Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. So, you know, maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it."

When Rep. Steny Hoyer flubbed the name of a GOP senator from South Carolina who has frequently opposed the president, Obama was quick to jump in with a correction: "Lindsey Graham. I don't know about Lindsay Thomas, but I know Lindsey Graham."

In announcing a health care summit next week, Obama seemed to channel his predecessor George W. Bush, who took liberty with the English language. The 44th president said, "It's not that I've got summit-itis here."

At another point, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., noted that on health care "there are some words that send us right into the weeds in the debate."

"Socialized medicine?" a chuckling Obama interjected, prompting yet another round of laughter. "Was that one of them?"

It's the GOP's oft-repeated criticism of the president's push for universal health care.

Obama also complimented Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union on his pastel purple neckwear after the union leader pressed Congress to tackle health care.

"Nice scarf, by the way," Obama said offhandedly. Laughter again, though it wasn't clear if he was teasing.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., urged Obama to continue to reach out to both sides of the aisle even though only three Republicans backed the $787 billion economic package.

"Well, I will certainly do that, Tom, because I'm just a glutton for punishment," Obama joked. "I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day, sooner or later, he's going to say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea.'"

Cantor is the No. 2 Republican in the House and was credited with unifying Republicans against the economic package.

Over the laughter, Obama teasingly predicted: "It's going to happen. You watch. You watch."

Yet, for all the fun and games, Obama took a pass when Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked him to encourage House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to include Republicans in the decision making.

"I'm not in Congress, so I don't want to interject myself too much into congressional politics," the former Illinois senator said. Then, not passing up a moment to make his pitch, he said: "But I do want to make this point, and I think it's important _ on the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive. On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive."


Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.