Obama Fires Back

Speaking to House members of the Republican Party in Baltimore, Maryland this Friday, President Barack Obama defended the measures which his administration has enacted over the past year as cameras rolled. The president took questions, corrected misstatements and blamed Republicans for distorting the true intentions and effects of his policies. So successful was his performance that Republican aides anonymously admitted that televising the encounter had been a “mistake”. The Huffington Post delighted in Obama’s “schooling” of Republicans whereas Fox News cut away from the broadcast twenty minutes before it ended.

After delivering a speech in which he reiterated the importance of continued dialogue between the party in power and the opposition, the president took questions, from Congressman Michael Pence for instance. Pence pointed at high job losses and wondered why the administration wouldn’t advocate tax cuts. Obama responded by reminding the congressman that hundreds of thousands of American lost their jobs already before his administration took office. The stimulus subsequently did include tax cuts which benefited a great majority of the American people. Such “component parts of the Recovery Act,” said the president, “are consistent with what many of you say are important things to do.” Which is perfectly true.

It were Bush era policies which caused the recession in the first place and economically, in spite of all the rhetoric, there is really little difference between the major parties nowadays. Neither speaks in favor of free markets. Neither opposes massive government interventions in private businesses nor renewed protectionist measures that are intended to safeguard American jobs but actually hurt trade and investment. Indeed, Obama bluntly admitted, “I am not an ideologue.” He is a pragmatist in the fullest sense of the word which means that his administration won’t fight anything that isn’t “practical” — except that in order to determine “practicality”, one still needs some sense of morality.

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee confronted the president on health-care reform and claimed that the Republicans had, in fact, many alternatives to offer that would not create “more government, more bureaucracy, and more cost for the American taxpayer.” Obama recognized that and reminded the congresswoman that several Republican proposals, as allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines, have been adopted by Democrats. “But the caveat is, we’ve got to do so with some minimum standards,” he said, “because otherwise what happens is that you could have insurance companies circumvent a whole bunch of state regulations about basic benefits.”

Yet such state regulations are exactly part of the reason why health insurance is so expensive in the United States. Rather than adjusting a health-care reform bill to existing obstructions, the president should not blame insurers beforehand but allow them to operate throughout the entire country, as is the norm in most other lines of business, while acknowledging what created the problem in the first place: intrusive government regulation.

Unfortunately, Congresswoman Blackburn failed to bring this up. Her party has polluted the health-care debate by presenting it as “some Bolshevik plot,” as the president put it. He scolded the Republicans for inventing such fantasies and accusing the Democrats of not involving them in the decisionmaking process. “You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.”

Some civility “instead of slash and burn would be helpful,” said Obama. “The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics.”

Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas was last up to ask the president about America’s mounting public debt. “We know that under current law, that government — the cost of government is due to grow from 20 percent of our economy to 40 percent of our economy,” said Hansarling, “right about the time our children are leaving college and getting that first job.” The national debt, meanwhile, “has increased 30 percent,” according to the Texas representative.

Obama retorted by reminding those present that his administration inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit, compared to the $200 billion surplus left by the Clinton Administration in 2000. True — the George W. Bush presidency left quite the financial mess to be dealt with. That, however, does not excuse the massive spending which Obama also favors.

Altogether, apart from some beatings which the Republicans more than deserved for playing politics rather dirty in recent years, Obama’s tone was far from belligerent. Indeed, repeatedly he stressed that his administration was open to new ideas and cooperation.

As admirable as one might think of the president’s search for consensus, every time he opens the door for bipartisanship, the Republicans will retreat further, demanding that he and the Democrats sacrifice more of their principles which subsequently sours their public approval ratings.

People don’t want a president who appears to be without convictions. They voted Obama into office because they didn’t think the Republicans were doing much of a stellar job at governing under President Bush. If he truly wants to reform health care, reform the financial sector, bring more transparency to government while repairing America’s shattered relationships overseas, he shouldn’t seek advice so much from the very people who failed to do so during the past eight years.