President Obama traveled to a House Republican retreat in Baltimore on Friday and delivered a performance that was at once defiant, substantive and engaging. For roughly an hour and a half, Obama lectured GOP leaders and, in a protracted, nationally-televised question-and-answer session, deflected their policy critiques, corrected their misstatements and scolded them for playing petty politics. (Full video and transcript available HERE.)
White House officials told the Huffington Post they were absolutely ecstatic. MSNBC's Luke Russert, who was on the scene in Baltimore, relayed that a Republican official and other GOP aides had confided to him that allowing the "cameras to roll like that" was a "mistake."
So effective was the president that Fox News cut away from the broadcast 20 minutes before it ended.
It was the type of performance that Obama's supporters have long demanded and that his own aides have been eager to deliver. The question-and-answer session at the end wasn't initially supposed to be broadcast, but the White House pressured GOP leadership to bring the cameras in. They knew the optics it would generate, a source with knowledge of the planning relayed. Hours before the event began, Republican leaders finally relented.
What resulted was what one Democratic strategist described as "amazing theater" -- certainly for cable news. Standing on a stage, looking down at his Republican questioners, Obama assumed the role of responsible adult to the GOP children, or, at the very least, of a college professor teaching and lecturing a room full of students.
He chastised Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) for calling his economic agenda radical and poked fun at the GOP's own platform. "I am not an ideologue, I'm not," he said. "It doesn't make sense if somebody could tell me, 'You could do this cheaper and get increased results,' then I would say, 'Great.' The problem is, I couldn't find credible economists who could back up the claims that you just made."
He rebuked a questioner who insisted that the monthly deficit is higher now than Bush's annual deficit. "That's factually just not true," he said. "And you know it's not true." He lampooned Republican lawmakers seated in front of him for portraying his health care legislation as "some Bolshevik plot." He mocked Republicans for railing against the stimulus package and then showing up at "the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities." And he did it all while calling for "a tone of civility instead of slash and burn will be helpful."
Whether it was chutzpah, political savvy, or both, it certainly was refreshing. Reporters were thrilled with the British Parliament-style exchange between president and lawmakers. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder asked that forums like these be held monthly. The Nation's Chris Hayes suggested Obama next go before the progressive caucus. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post labeled it "the most compelling political television I've seen...maybe ever. NBC's Chuck Todd added: "The president should hold Congressional 'town halls' more often. Public needs to see this if they'll ever trust Washington again."
From the narrower vantage point of the White House, the event also made for effective politics, spurring some comparisons to the type of political engagement relished by former President Bill Clinton.
"Most people thinking about this would have thought 'ooh Obama is going into the lion's den," said Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's former press secretary. "But there was a great opportunity to jujitsu that. On one level it looked brave but on another he was the substitute teacher there, lecturing the audience.
"A lot of us have been waiting for that moment, a little more fight, a little more politics," she added. "He is in a political business and he has to pay attention to not just the substance but the politics."