Obama, Republicans face off at Baltimore retreat

President Obama went toe-to-toe with some of his fiercest critics today, engaging in an unscripted, unusual and public question-and-answer session with Republican members of the House of Representatives.

The venue was a hotel ballroom here, where the Republican lawmakers had invited the president to speak at their annual retreat. Obama, facing a respectful but disapproving crowd, repeatedly defended his policies and accused Republicans of distorting his positions for political gain. He was especially critical of the GOP’s efforts to derail the healthcare overhaul bill in Congress.

“You’d think this was some Bolshevik plot,” Obama said. “That’s how some of you guys presented this.”

And he argued that constant political attacks on his agenda had almost robbed the GOP of any opportunity to contribute.

“What happens is that you guys don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me,” Obama said. “The fact of the matter is, many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable with your own base, with your own party, because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.’ ”

The event was notable for its departure from the norms of the American political process, resembling more the British tradition of a leader taking fire from members of the opposition party -- and for the fact that it was broadcast nationally.

Like the audience on a daytime talk show, the GOP members held microphones and questioned Obama. The president answered from behind a podium, his image displayed on large TV screens. The exchange went for 90 minutes -- longer than scheduled.

“I’m having fun,” Obama said at one point.

For the most part, the Republicans held their tongues and praised the president for listening to their concerns. When Obama maintained that “I am not an ideologue,” however, murmurs of dissent could be heard throughout the room. “I’m not,” he repeated.

House Republicans were determined to use the occasion to rebut skeptics who argue that the party offers few ideas and opposes legislation out of political convenience, not principle. They handed Obama a thick document containing Republican policy proposals when he was introduced.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, part of the GOP leadership in the House, said before the session that his party needed to show voters that “we’re ready to govern again” in advance of congressional elections this fall.

The president began by urging bipartisanship and cooperation in a manner similar to his State of the Union address this week. “I don’t believe the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security,” Obama said to a loud ovation.

Soon, however, bolstered by the day’s news of a large boost in the nation’s gross domestic product, Obama took the audience to task for opposing his economic stimulus plan a year ago, arguing that it contained the kind of tax breaks that the GOP typically advocates. And he accused lawmakers who opposed the stimulus of taking credit in their home districts for projects that benefited from the stimulus money.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings of some of these important projects in your communities.”

He was pressed by freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah to explain why Obama had not followed through on his pledge that negotiations over the healthcare bill would be broadcast on television. Obama argued that most of the debate had in fact been aired, except for some of the talks close to the Senate vote. “That was a messy process,” Obama said. “I take responsibility.”

Near the end of the session, the president pushed back firmly at Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s insistence that the administration had dramatically inflated the nation’s budget deficit, cutting off Hensarling in mid-sentence. “That whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign,” Obama charged.

While some in the room compared the scene to the Biblical tale of Daniel entering the lion’s den, the outcome was less transformative. Republican members did not leave the room purring like kittens, and some were dismissive of the president’s attempt to engage them.

“A few times, I thought the furniture was going to float in the air,” said Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. “I think the man is a good speaker. His speeches are a little unconnected to the real facts on the ground.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia lauded Obama for making the trip but said that he had adopted an overly defensive and lecturing tone. “I think the president could be a little more diplomatic,” Gingrey said. “The president reacts a little too much.”

The House Republican leader, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, was more effusive after the exchange. “I thought the dialogue went very well,” Boehner said. “We want to continue to find common ground.”