Opinion: The politics summit at Obama’s house: Republicans, Democrats and a couple of encouraging signs


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You know those foreign summit meetings where the two leaders emerge to shake hands again for the cameras and make statements together and possibly take some questions where they refer to each other by friendly first names?

Well, there was none of that today following the long-awaited, once-postponed bipartisan domestic politics summit to lay out the working rules for the new party balance ordered up by American voters four weeks ago today.


The party leaders gave their own individual interpretations to media afterward and President Obama, being the current owner of the prominent presidential podium, held his own media availability to give his talking points the loudest. (See news release and transcript below.)

Although time is quickly running out on the increasingly lame lame-duck session of Congress, probably the....

... best that could be expected today was everyone saying everyone was cordial and the talks would be ongoing. Still no explanation for why this kind of get-down-to-work-together-on-the-people’s-business took nearly 23 of the Obama administration’s first 24 months. The unofficial answer, of course, is that in November 2008, American voters made the rash decision to hand both legislative houses and the White House to one party, the Democrats, whose majorities enabled them to do pretty much whatever they wanted while complaining the minority GOP was getting in the way. A president still sets the agenda. But there’s a new game now with the House in GOP hands come January.

From this spot, the most encouraging if small sign that some things might actually get done in the next year or so came from Obama, the aloof fellow who couldn’t be bothered having the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell up to the White House for a simple chat until this past August, fully 19 months after moving in. Today Obama vowed to reach out more effectively.

You shouldn’t have to spend $750 million to get elected president to understand that someday you might need your opponents for something other than red-meat applause lines at partisan fundraisers.

Another good sign from Obama at the one-hour scheduled meeting that turned into two: For the last half-hour, Obama dismissed everyone’s advisors and took the congressional leaders into another room for a special private session (see photo above). This, of course, means nothing. That kind of no-cost deference to galaxy-sized congressional egos really works. It gets people off their memorized talking points. You’d think a former senator would know that going in.


True, Obama has not said publicly that he arrogantly blew the first two years with his healthcare mono-vision after promising a new brand of pragmatic politics and that he got the message when voters cut his party down to size early this month. But if the Democrat ends up acting that way anyway, pretending to be the honest broker between sides, what’s the difference really? He’s got to show some accomplishments come 2012.

First target: What to do about the expiring tax cuts? Both sides remain wary. Obama can appear brave by taking predictable heat from his impotent left that hasn’t even made him kill ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ yet. Republicans like Speaker-elect John Boehner feel the need to stress why they were sent there; you know, the deficit- budget-cutting, non-tax-raising lines. But with the president trying out the statesman role, they can’t afford to look too belligerent.

There’s even talk now of political retreats to Camp David. Hey, if that woodsy place named for a president’s beloved grandson can bring Egypt and Israel together, it just might work on Ohioans and Nevadans.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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House Speaker-elect John Boehner’s news release on the White House meeting, as provided by his office

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-OH) participated in a media availability today following a meeting at the White House of President Obama and congressional leaders.


The meeting served as an opportunity to discuss the priorities of the American people, who want us to focus on creating jobs by stopping all the tax hikes and cutting spending. This is the approach Republicans laid out in the Pledge to America, a governing agenda built by listening to the people.

“It’s encouraging to see President Obama acknowledge that the American people want us to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, but now it’s time to act,” Boehner said in a statement after the meeting.

“If President Obama and Democratic leaders come up with a plan in the lame-duck session to cut spending and stop all the tax hikes, they can expect a positive response from Republicans. If the lame-duck Congress is unable or unwilling to act, the new House majority will in January.”

Boehner also noted that President Obama has asked congressional leaders of both parties to select lawmakers to meet with Administration officials in the coming days regarding the looming tax hikes scheduled to take effect on January 1st. Boehner announced that Ways & Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) would be the House GOP designee in these discussions.

Boehner added, “We appreciate President Obama’s interest in having informal discussions on stopping all the tax hikes, and we hope these talks are productive. At the same time, this is no substitute for action.

Republicans made a pledge to America to cut spending and permanently stop all the tax hikes, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for. ####


President Obama’s remarks after meeting congressional leaders, as provided by the White House

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. By the way, for those of you who are curious, we’re using this room because we’ve got about a hundred volunteers decorating the White House. So we’re spending a little more time in the EEOB.

I just wrapped up a meeting with leaders from both parties. It was our first chance to get together face to face since the election to talk about how we can best work together to move the country forward.

It’s no secret that we have had differences that have led us to part ways on many issues in the past. But we are Americans first, and we share a responsibility for the stewardship of our nation. The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn’t vote for unyielding partisanship.They’re demanding cooperation and they’re demanding progress. And they’ll hold all of us –- and I mean all of us –- accountable for it. And I was very encouraged by the fact that there was broad recognition of that fact in the room.

I just want to say I thought it was a productive meeting. I thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together. And I think it’s a good start as we move forward.

I think everybody understands that the American people want us to focus on their jobs, not ours. They want us to come together around strategies to accelerate the recovery and get Americans back to work. They want us to confront the long-term deficits that cloud our future. They want us to focus on their safety and security, and not allow matters of urgent importance to become locked up in the politics of Washington.


So today we had the beginning of a new dialogue that I hope –- and I’m sure most Americans hope -– will help break through the noise and produce real gains. And, as we all agreed, that should begin today because there’s some things we need to get done in the weeks before Congress leaves town for the holidays.

First, we should work to make sure that taxes will not go up by thousands of dollars on hardworking middle-class Americans come January 1st, which would be disastrous for those families but also could be crippling for the economy. There was broad agreement that we need to work to get that resolved before the end of the year.

Now, there’s still differences about how to get there. Republican leaders want to permanently extend tax cuts not only to middle-class families but also to some of the wealthiest Americans at the same time. And here we disagree. I believe, and the other Democrats who were in the room believe that this would add an additional $700 billion to our debt in the next 10 years. And I continue to believe that it would be unwise and unfair, particularly at a time when we’re contemplating deep budget cuts that require broad sacrifice.

Having said that, we agreed that there must be some sensible common ground. So I appointed my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, and my budget director, Jack Lew, to work with representatives of both parties to break through this logjam. I’ve asked the leaders to appoint members to help in this negotiation process. They agreed to do that. That process is beginning right away and we expect to get some answers back over the next couple of days about how we can accomplish our key goal, which is to make sure the economy continues to grow and we are putting people back to work. And we also want to make sure that we’re giving the middle class the peace of mind of knowing that their taxes will not be raised come January 1st.

I also urged both parties to move quickly to preserve a number of other tax breaks for individuals and businesses that are helping our recovery right now and that are set to expire at the end of the year. This includes a tax credit for college tuition, a tax credit for 95 percent -- a tax break for 95 percent of working families that I initiated at the beginning of my presidency, as well as a tax cut worth thousands of dollars for businesses that hire unemployed workers.

We discussed a number of other issues as well, including the importance of ratifying the New START treaty so we can monitor Russia’s nuclear arsenal, reduce our nuclear weapons, and strengthen our relationship with Russia. I reminded the room that this treaty has been vetted for seven months now; it’s gone through 18 hearings; it has support from senators of both parties; it has broad bipartisan support from national security advisors and secretaries of defense and secretaries of state from previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican; and that it’s absolutely essential to our national security. We need to get it done.


We also talked about the work of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission and the difficult choices that will be required in order to get our fiscal house in order. We discussed working together to keep the government running this year -– and running in a fiscally responsible way. And we discussed unemployment insurance, which expires today. I’ve asked that Congress act to extend this emergency relief without delay to folks who are facing tough times by no fault of their own.

Now, none of this is going to be easy. We have two parties for a reason. There are real philosophical differences -– deeply held principles to which each party holds. And although the atmosphere in today’s meeting was extremely civil, there’s no doubt that those differences are going to remain no matter how many meetings we have. And the truth is there’s always going to be a political incentive against working together, particularly in the current hyperpartisan climate. There are always those who argue that the best strategy is simply to try to defeat your opposition instead of working with them.

And, frankly, even the notion of bipartisanship itself has gotten caught up in this mentality. A lot of times coming out of these meetings, both sides claim they want to work together, but try to paint the opponent as unyielding and unwilling to cooperate. Both sides come to the table; they read their talking points; then they head out to the microphones -– trying to win the news cycle instead of solving problems, and it becomes just another move in an old Washington game.

But I think there was recognition today that that’s a game that we can’t afford. Not in these times. And in a private meeting that I had without staff -- without betraying any confidences -- I was pleased to see several of my friends in the room say, let’s try not to duplicate that. Let’s not try to work the Washington spin cycle to suggest that somehow the other side is not being cooperative. I think that there was a sincere effort on the part of everybody involved to actually commit to work together to try to deal with these problems.

And they understand that these aren’t times for us to be playing games. As I told the leaders at the beginning of the meeting, the next election is two years away, and there will be plenty of time for campaigning. But right now we’re facing some very serious challenges. We share an obligation to meet them. And that will require choosing the best of our ideas over the worst of our politics.

So that’s the spirit in which I invited both parties here today. I’m happy with how the meeting went. And I told all the leadership that I look forward to holding additional meetings, including at Camp David.


Harry Reid mentioned that he’s been in Congress for 28 years; he’s never been to Camp David. And so I told him, well, we’re going to have to get them all up there sometime soon.

And I very much appreciate their presence today. I appreciate the tenor of the conversations. I think it will actually yield results before the end of the year, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue in the months ahead. Thank you very much, everybody. ####