Conciliation, Barbs As Obama Addresses Republicans

President Obama and Republican House questioned and sometimes lectured each other, as the president addressed a GOP House gathering in Baltimore. Both sides were conciliatory, but sometimes the exchanges were pointed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And Im Madeleine Brand in California.

An extraordinary display of political fencing today as President Obama spoke to a gathering of House Republicans. The GOP is holding its annual retreat in Baltimore and invited the president to speak. What followed was an incredibly nuanced kabuki dance with each side trying to gain the political advantage.

NPRs Andrea Seabrook was there and she filed this report.

President BARACK OBAMA: You know what they say: keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREA SEABROOK: Obamas speech started out as a treative(ph) to the gathered Republicans to help him make Washington act less Washington-like.

Pres. OBAMA: But I dont believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: He also spanked Republicans for not voting for the stimulus package that most economists say helped the economy recover. And he said the differences between the two parties are not nearly as gaping as politics make them seem.

Pres. OBAMA: But weve gotten caught up in the political game in a way thats just not healthy. Its dividing our country in ways that are preventing us from meeting the challenge of the 21st century. Im hopeful that the conversation we have today can help reverse that. So, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: Now, at these events, the media is usually kicked out of the room after the main speech, but late last night, according to GOP retreat organizers, President Obama called and asked that the press be allowed to stay in the room for the extended Q&A with Republican congressmen, and they said yes. That gave Republicans their turn to make points, starting with conference chairman Mike Pence.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): Thank you, Mr. President. Now, last year your administration and your party in Congress told us that we'd have to borrow more than $700 billion to pay for a so-called stimulus bill that we were told had to be passed or unemployment would go to eight percent. Well, unemployment is 10 percent now, as you well know, Mr. President.

SEABROOK: This began a series of questions that seemed more intent on making a point than making an inquiry. Republicans deftly packed their questions with policy statements and political jabs. And President Obama, just as deftly, focused on dismantling the Republicans premises.

Pres. OBAMA: Lets talk about just the jobs environment generally.

SEABROOK: The dance went on for a good 45 minutes. Energy policy, health care, taxes, jobs, everyone smiling, everyone sparring. The exercise only became overt a couple times. For example, when Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling asked this marathon question.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): Mr. President, a year ago, I had an opportunity to speak to you about the national debt. The Republicans...proposed a budget that ensured that government did not grow beyond the historical standard of 20 percent. The national debt has increased 30 percent. Now, Mr. President, I know you believe...Mr. President, youre due to submit a new budget. And my question is...

Pres. OBAMA: Jim, I know theres a question in there somewhere because youre making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with. And Im having to sit here listening to them. At some point, I know youre going to let me answer.

Rep. HENSARLING: Well, that...like your old budget, triple the national debt and continued to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy. Thats the question, Mr. President.

Pres. OBAMA: All right, Jim, with all due respect, Ive just got to take this last question as an example of how its very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that were going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running - running a campaign.

SEABROOK: And it probably didnt help the cause of bipartisanship that the president kept referring to Jeb Hensarling as Jim. Afterwards, the president mingled with lawmakers families while the Republican leaders and their staff immediately began trying to figure out who had benefited from this. Some were annoyed that Mr. Obama had dodged their questions; others seemed to have a kind of grudging respect for his skill at dissection. No one seemed to think this one extraordinary scrimmage would change things in Washington, but at least for once the real game was on full display.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Baltimore.

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