Obama Spars With Harshest Critics in GOP

It was one of the most compelling moments of Barack Obama's presidency: The president taking questions from some of his harshest critics in the opposition, and, in the process, castigating them for casting his policies as to the extreme left.

Mr. Obama told members of the House GOP at a Baltimore retreat that their decision to tell their constituents he is "going to destroy America" had made it virtually impossible for them to vote with Democrats on even moderate policies, at least if they didn't want to jeopardize their reelection prospects.

Perhaps the most striking moment in the president's appearance – which was reminiscent of a Prime Minister appearing before the British Parliament, though far more polite – was when the president complained that some Republicans had suggested his policies, which he cast as relatively moderate, were in service of a "Bolshevik plot."

There was some applause following that comment – apparently not an endorsement of the president's point, but rather the notion that he was, indeed, a Bolshevik. The moment seemed to point to the futility of the president's message – the GOP is not suddenly going to start portraying Mr. Obama and the Democrats as moderate realists, especially when Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts suggests the current strategy has been working just fine.

Still, it was an amazing scene: The president of the United States telling his critics directly that if they want anything to get done, their tone has to change. At one point he said, "I'm not an ideologue, I'm just not," arguing that he and his party had incorporated good Republican ideas into health care reform and other legislative efforts.

Republicans, in turn, were eager to argue that, contrary to Democratic suggestions, they are not just "the Party of No," an obstructionist block uninterested in working with the majority party no matter what. House Republican Leader John Boehner handed the president a document called "GOP Better Solutions" outlining the GOP's policy positions at the outset of the event, and virtually all eight Republican questioners stressed that their party does have ideas.

Mr. Obama countered, however, that while Republican ideas may be there, corroboration from independent analysts that many would be effective were not. He signaled out tort reform, saying that for Republicans to suggest that it's all that is needed to hold down health care costs – when the Congressional Budget Office is suggesting it would be just a drop in the bucket – is disingenuous. "It can't just be political assertions that aren't substantiated when it comes to actual policy," he said.

Mr. Obama dealt deftly with difficult questions in the 90-minute sessions, and perhaps even put to rest conservative jokes about his use of a teleprompter (at least temporarily). At one point, when it was suggested the event would soon wrap up, the president, squarely in enemy territory, shrugged off the possibility, quipping, "I'm having fun."

"The Republican House Caucus has managed to turn Obama's weakness -- his penchant for nuance -- into a strength," wrote The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, who is also CBS News' chief political consultant. "Plenty of Republicans asked good and probing questions, but Mike Pence, among others, found their arguments simply demolished by the president."

After Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas asked Mr. Obama a question on the national debt, the president used it to make his point. "The whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," he said. He called Hensarling's suggestion that the monthly deficit under the Democrats matched the yearly deficit under Republicans "factually just not true," – and added, "and you know it's not true."

In his speech before the question-and-answer session, the president asked Republican lawmakers to sign onto his effort to pass new tax credits for small businesses for hiring and wage increases, as well as an elimination of the small business capital gains tax.

"There is nothing in that proposal," he said, "that runs contrary to the ideological dispositions in this caucus." Yet he suggested that didn't matter to Republicans, because they were more interested in scoring political points than finding common ground.

Brown's victory last week was bad news for the Democrats, but it did come with a silver lining: it meant Republicans could no longer simply offer unified opposition to every initiative put forth by the Democrats and claim they are little more than bystanders.

That's because the Republicans now control 41 votes in the Senate, enough to filibuster each and every bill that gets put forward. Mr. Obama made the point explicitly in his State of the Union address Wednesday, which, combined with his comments Friday, points to the posture Democrats seem to be adopting for 2010.

"If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well," he said. "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

Republicans have spent much of the year in unified opposition to the Democrats' agenda, none more so than their efforts to reform health care –- even going so far as to filibuster a defense spending bill in December to stall the legislation.

Now the GOP is trying to decide if their oppositional strategy makes sense in 2010, with the midterm elections looming. Boehner, who has signaled little interest in working with Democrats, told colleagues Thursday that "we could conceivably win by simply opposing everything and standing for nothing. But could we govern that way? I think we all know the answer is 'no.'"

While Americans have become somewhat disenchanted with Democrats over the past year, they have not rallied to Congressional Republicans – whose approval rating is hovering around just 30 percent in polls. The party is looking to craft a unified agenda heading into the midterms, which might even involve a second Contract for America, the straightforward set of proposals that helped the GOP take control of Congress in 1994.

But the decentralization of the party has made that harder. Republicans in Washington may be unified, but conservatives around the country are not – witness the Republican primary fights going on in places like Florida, where GOP voters are splitting behind establishment candidates like Charlie Crist and Tea Party darlings like Marco Rubio.

Following Mr. Obama's appearance Friday, Boehner came before the cameras to suggest he wouldn't be changing his posture. When he casts the health care reform effort as a "government takeover," he said, that's because he "truly believe[s]" that it is.

Now the question for the White House is whether the president can build on this appearance and the State of the Union to convince Americans he is genuinely interested in engagement. While he may not be able to change the tone in Washington, he's likely to find value in making the case that he is actually trying.