Obama Opens Dialogue With GOP

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Last Friday, president Obama met with House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore. Columnists Marc Lamont Hill and Ruben Navarette discuss the unprecedented meeting and whether it produced any tangible results.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We want to turn now to matters here in the U.S. Last Friday, President Obama met with House Republicans in Baltimore and stressed the need for more bipartisanship, or at the very least, more civility.

President BARACK OBAMA: I mean, weve got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together because our constituents start believing us. They dont know sometimes this is just politics, what you guys - you know, or folks on my side do sometimes. So just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this. So, weve called Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist and a regular TELL ME MORE contributor. We're also joined by Marc Lamont Hill, a syndicated columnist and professor of education and African-American studies at Columbia University. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Thank you, Michel.

Professor MARC LAMONT HILL (Education, African-American Studies, Columbia University): Thank you for having me. Its good to be here.

MARTIN: Ruben, the exchange between the president and congressional Republicans is getting some very interesting reviews. In fact, one columnist said, you know, for a minute, the government wasnt so lame. Did - were you similarly impressed?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Absolutely impressed. You know, I said before, you could watch a thousand hours of C-SPAN and not get as great a tutorial on how government works as you got from watching this for a half hour - or for an hour. And I think, you know, you got a tutorial for how government works, but also how sometimes it doesnt work and why it doesnt work. I was really impressed with the president, his range of topics, the fact that he is so good, really, in this kind of combative stage. People come after him in very aggressive ways, and he sort of rises to the occasion.

If I were the president, I would try to do this every month. But at the same time, I would learn from this and not continually surround myself with people who agree with me and tell me things that I want to hear. Because he really does, I think, take it to another higher, better level when he's challenged. And he ought to get challenged more often.

MARTIN: How did the Republicans equip themselves, in your view?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Not very well, you know. Well, I want to say that a lot of their criticisms I think were fair. They talked about whether Obama had broken some promises, whether he had not, you know, what does he think about the fact that Pelosi has frozen them out of the deal-making processes and deliberation over health care reform. There were some very fair criticisms I thought that they brought up. But really, the part that sent me out the window was when Republicans started to whine - and Ill use that word - whine about how they werent being included - their ideas werent being be respected, when - as they were fond of reminding us during the Bush years - elections have consequences. If you want to be president, run for president and elect a president.

And clearly, the Democrats have won. Their ideas of triumphed, and Republicans need to understand that.

MARTIN: Marc, what about you? What was your reaction to the exchange last week?

Prof. HILL: Well, first, I was impressed as, you know, as Ruben said, with the level of sort of transparency in the process. It didnt feel like the kind of public posturing that happens at a State of the Union address even a special session of Congress. This felt like real government in action. And I think it was because so many Republicans, you know, werent used to having this particular process being televised. And so, you know, it was a sense of having one's guard down. I thought it was absolutely great. And I thought it was instructive to the American people. I think that...

MARTIN: What was instructive about it? You and Ruben said the same thing. And we have a minute here. Were going to take a break and come right back to you. But tell me, what was instructive about it, Marc - as an instructor, as an educator yourself?

Prof. HILL: Yeah, well, I think part of it is that the American people dont get a sense of how the back-and-forth goes. I dont think they understand necessarily what issues are at stake when you get beyond the talking points and you get into, you know, the specifics in legislation. And Im not sure they understand how the different Houses, different branches of government, rather, interact with one another in real time. And so I think they got a real lesson in civics - real-life civics.

MARTIN: What was the moment that stood out for you?

Prof. HILL: I thought it was when Obama sort of pushed back and showed a level of aggressiveness and acuity and nimbleness in the debate sector that he normally doesnt do when he's giving a sort of prep speech. I thought that was very exciting when he said, look. Im not going - you made up - you're asking a question that hinges on five assumptions that arent true. And Im going to show you why those assumptions arent true...

MARTIN: Okay.

Prof. HILL: ...before I get to your question. The push back was great.

MARTIN: Well, Im going to push back with you for just a minute. In a moment, were going to continue our conversation with journalist Ruben NAVARRETTE and Professor Marc Lamont Hill. We're talking about the presidents visit with the House Republican Caucus last Friday. Thats coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, as we begin Black History Month, we hear about the power of the black purse today. But first, we continue our conversation with Journalist Ruben Navarrette and Professor Marc Lamont Hill about last Fridays exchange between President Obama and the House Republican Caucus. Let me play another short clip of President Obama. Here it is.

Pres. OBAMA: These are serious times. And whats required by all of us, Democrats and Republicans, is to do whats right for our country, even if its not always whats best for our politics. I know it may be heresy to say this, but there are things more important than good poll numbers. And on this, no one can accuse me of not living by my principles.

MARTIN: Marc, there are those who felt that the president was - Im not sure that anybody use the word patronizing, but that was kind of the subtext of some of the criticism of it. They said he's not, you know, professor-in-chief. He's - and that they felt that there was a bit of a talking down to, both in the State of the Union and then that exchange. Whats your take on that?

Prof. HILL: Well, I think, for me, I certainly could see how someone on the right could say that. My critique would be more that it's disingenuous, because President Obama constantly appeals to polls when making decisions, particularly on the foreign policy - actually, on foreign and domestic policy. But I think there was something patronizing about the comment, but that doesnt mean that he was wrong. You know, and I think it was a necessary political move, because so many of us on the left had been concerned with President Obama - and really Democrats, in general's failure to challenge Republicans on obstructionism.

Their failure - the Democrats failure to really push back against Republicans for their, you know, for their lack of engagement in the political process and really trying to get laws through. You know, I think that type of move by Obama wasnt necessary. Was the tone patronizing? Perhaps. But the message was right and exact.

MARTIN: Ruben, you are a person who's very sort of determinately in the middle. Youre often willing to call out both Republicans and Democrats...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right, right.

MARTIN: Whats your sense of whether the Republicans - I know you said that you dont feel that they were - acquitted themselves as well as the president did. But why not? What should they have done differently?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, I mean, we've got to understand, you know, the one thing I think missing in Washington is moral consistency. Theres so much situational ethics. You know, when we're in power, they say one thing. And then now we're out of power, they change their tune. And for a long time, for the eight years of the Bush administration, Republicans said, look, you know, if you want to be the president, run, be president. But youre not going to choose our judges for us, for instance. I mean, for me, a laughable moment in the last eight years when Democrats would submit names of judges, you know, as if somehow they got to pick the judges - no, the president picks the judges. Well, now the shoe's on the other foot.

And now Republicans have to understand that their policies dont get to rule the day. If their policies were accepted by the American people, they'd be talking to John McCain right now. But they're not. And so, just to be consistent in that regard - which, as I said, is sometimes a quality missing in Washington - you've got to be straight on this and say, listen. Theyve got to take a back seat. Theyve got to work with the president. But the president, Pelosi and Reid get to drive the car, you know. Republicans dont get to be in charge because they havent won the requisite number of seats in Congress, and they havent won the presidency. Its pretty basic. As the president says, that's how democracy works.

MARTIN: Well, their argument is that there is - it is equally their responsibility, as the Democrats did in the past, that it is equally their responsibility to stop bad policies...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...as it is to advance - or policies that they think are bad - as it is to advance their own policies. And in that regard, dont they have a point? If they genuinely believe that the health care overhaul is contemplated by this administration and their Democratic allies...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...in Congress is bad for the country, dont they have a responsibility to stop it?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, well, they do. They have the responsibility to be heard on their issue. For instance, on abortion, a lot of them feel, you know, its very logical and righteous cause. They believe that public funding shouldnt go to elective abortions. And so theyre going to fight that battle, and they should fight that battle. But, you know, you've got to understand your position in the scheme of things. When you take back Congress, then you'll have one conversation. You'll take back the presidency, youll be in a different place.

Prof. HILL: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: But this notion somehow - and I heard it time and again from members of Congress, you know, were being ignored or our views arent being accepted. Your ides - you know, this is Regan economic policy. I mean, independent of the fact that I like a lot of what theyre saying, there is a question of sort of deference to the will of the voter. And the voters have spoken pretty loudly. I've been very critical of Obama and the Democrats. But on this case, I think the Republicans came off whiny.

MARTIN: And Marc, finally, people talked - the president is talking about bipartisanship as the goal here, at least the means by which governing happens, and there are many Democrats who just don't agree with him. They think it's more important to win their ideas. And as a person who is, as you've said, a person sort of the left, do you value bipartisanship as much as the president seems to?

Prof. HILL: I don't value bipartisanship as much as the president seems to. But I think there's a pragmatism attached to bipartisanship. I mean, if the American people have the perception that you're ram-rodding things through, you know, against the will of a disgruntled minority on 49 percent of the American people, for example, then you pay the price for that in 2010, you pay the price for that in 2012. So, there's a long-term pragmatism attached to bipartisanship. It's not just about people holding hands and having some, you know, Utopian vision of democracy. It's about a long-term vision of sustaining a political movement. And I think that's why Obama is doing it.

But quite frankly, with health care or these high stakes public policy issues, I'd much rather see a policy go through than to see Republicans happy. I would rather see, you know, a civil majority, you know, push through a public option in health care than to see, you know, Obama realize his vision of Democratic politics. That, to me, is less interesting.

MARTIN: Marc Lamont Hill is a syndicated columnist and professor of education in African-American studies at Columbia University. He was on the phone with us from his home office in Philadelphia. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist and a regular TELL ME MORE contributor. He joined us on the phone from San Diego. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you, Michel.

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