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Obama and the GOP, airing their grievances

Obama-GOP retreat President Obama held an on-the-record Q&A session today with the House Republican caucus, and the transcript (which you can download here) provides some good insights into the frustrations on both sides.

The gathering started with a lengthy speech by Obama that, although friendly in tone, gave surprisingly little ground on any issue. It's as if he thinks he's done enough already to incorporate selected GOP ideas into his proposals, without realizing that he's just cherry-picking instead of looking for real middle ground.

Republicans come off little better, though. You can almost hear them seething, which may say more about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her leadership style than Obama's approach to governing. The tone may be civil, but there are recriminations aplenty. The most disappointing thing is how interested the GOP seemed in refighting past battles instead of discussing what both sides say is their top priority going forward: creating jobs.

After the jump I've pasted an unedited version of the final exchange of the afternoon, which struck me as the most illuminating one. It involves Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, Obama and Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, and Hensarling came out swinging:

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  I'm doing well.  Mr. President, a year ago I had an opportunity to speak to you about the national debt.  And something that you and I have in common is we both have small children.

THE PRESIDENT:  Absolutely.

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  And I left that conversation really feeling your sincere commitment to ensuring that our children, our nation's children, do not inherit an unconscionable debt.  We know that under current law, that government -- the cost of government is due to grow from 20% of our economy to 40% of our economy, right about the time our children are leaving college and getting that first job.

Mr. President, shortly after that conversation a year ago, the Republicans proposed a budget that ensured that government did not grow beyond the historical standard of 20% of GDP.  It was a budget that actually froze immediately nondefense discretionary spending.  It spent $5 trillion less than ultimately what was enacted into law, and unfortunately, I believe that budget was ignored.  And since that budget was ignored, what were the old annual deficits under Republicans have now become the monthly deficits under Democrats.  The national debt has increased 30%.

Now, Mr. President, I know you believe -- and I understand the argument, and I respect the view that the spending is necessary due to the recession; many of us believe, frankly, it's part of the problem, not part of the solution.  But I understand and I respect your view.  But this is what I don't understand, Mr. President.  After that discussion, your administration proposed a budget that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years -- surely you don't believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession -- and propose new entitlement spending and move the cost of government to almost 24.5% of the economy.

Now, very soon, Mr. President, you're due to submit a new budget.  And my question is --

THE PRESIDENT:  Jeb, I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with, and I'm having to sit here listening to them.  At some point I know you're going to let me answer.  All right.

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  That's the question.  You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President.  Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25% of our economy?  That's the question, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT:  Jeb, with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.

Now, look, let's talk about the budget once again, because I'll go through it with you line by line.  The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion -- $1.3 [trillion.]  So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly budget that is higher than the -- a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true.

And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3-trillion deficit before I had passed any law.  What is true is we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade -- had nothing to do with anything that we had done.  It had to do with the fact that in 2000, when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for.

You had a prescription drug plan -- the biggest entitlement plan, by the way, in several decades -- that was passed without it being paid for.  You had two wars that were done through supplementals.  And then you had $3 trillion projected because of the lost revenue of this recession.  That's $8 trillion.

Now, we increased it by a trillion dollars because of the spending that we had to make on the stimulus.  I am happy to have any independent fact-checker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.

Now, going forward, here's the deal.  I think, Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal.  I've read it.  I can tell you what's in it.  And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don't agree with them.

The major driver of our long-term liabilities, everybody here knows, is Medicare and Medicaid and our healthcare spending.  Nothing comes close.  Social Security we could probably fix the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan -- sat down together and they could figure something out.  That is manageable.  Medicare and Medicaid -- massive problem down the road.  That's where -- that's going to be what our children have to worry about.

Now, Paul's approach -- and I want to be careful not simplifying this, because I know you've got a lot of detail in your plan -- but if I understand it correctly, would say we're going to provide vouchers of some sort for current Medicare recipients at the current level --



CONGRESSMAN RYAN:  People 55 and above --

THE PRESIDENT:  Fifty-five and -- well, no, I understand.  I mean, there's a grandfathering in, but just for future beneficiaries, right?  That's why I said I didn't want to -- I want to make sure that I'm not being unfair to your proposal, but I just want to point out that I've read it.  And the basic idea would be that at some point we hold Medicare cost per recipient constant as a way of making sure that that doesn't go way out of whack, and I'm sure there are some details that --

CONGRESSMAN RYAN:  We drew it as a blend of inflation and health inflation, the point of our plan is -- because Medicare, as you know, is a $38-trillion unfunded liability -- it has to be reform for younger generations because it won't exist because it's going bankrupt.  And the premise of our idea is, look, why not give people the same kind of healthcare plan we here have in Congress?  That's the kind of reform we're proposing for Medicare.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  No, I understand.  Right, right.  Well, look, as I said before, this is an entirely legitimate proposal.  The problem is twofold:  One is that depending on how it's structured, if recipients are suddenly getting a plan that has their reimbursement rates going like this, but healthcare costs are still going up like that, then over time the way we're saving money is essentially by capping what they're getting relative to their costs.

Now, I just want to point out -- and this brings me to the second problem -- when we made a very modest proposal as part of our package, our healthcare reform package, to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board, by many on your aisle, for slashing Medicare.  You remember?  We're going to start cutting benefits for seniors.  That was the story that was perpetrated out there -- scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors.

No, no, but here's my point.  If the main question is going to be what do we do about Medicare costs, any proposal that Paul makes will be painted, factually, from the perspective of those who disagree with it, as cutting benefits over the long term.  Paul, I don't think you disagree with that, that there is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare.  And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.

And I raise that not because we shouldn't have a series discussion about it.  I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's -- the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z. 

That's why I say if we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, who's to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side.  And unfortunately, that's how our politics works right now.  And that's how a lot of our discussion works.  That's how we start off -- every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points -- I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front.  He's already polled it, and he said, you know, the way you're really going to -- I've done a focus group and the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one -- I know, I like Frank, we've had conversations between Frank and I.  But that's how we operate.  It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems.

And so the question is, at what point can we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious question about -- a serious conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we're not simply trying to position ourselves politically.  That's what I'm committed to doing.  We won't agree all the time in getting it done, but I'm committed to doing it.

It's not explicit in the transcript, but you can tell from Obama's remarks that the crowd was pushing back pretty firmly at times. I give him credit, though, for not pulling out the big rhetorical guns when describing Ryan's proposal. If Obama had proposed to cap Medicare support for beneficiaries at some amount less than the rise in healthcare inflation, as Ryan has proposed, his critics would call it "rationing." That's a description that critics of Obamacare like to use, after all, and in the case of Ryan's proposal, it fits.

But the point here isn't that Ryan's idea is lousy. It's that if you declare that it's rationing, you can't have a rational debate on the merits. Instead, you have people saying, "Ryan wants to kill grandma."

That's where we are in this country, unfortunately. We're not just talking past each other on policy issues; we're screaming.

Credit: AP Photo / Charles Dharapak

-- Jon Healey


Comments () | Archives (8)

The comments to this entry are closed.


Well Obama used the word most closely associated with his policy's "Bolshevik." The American citizen is not dumb as many intellectuals would think. They know when the country is headed in the wrong direction and have expressed it through polls. Congress is lost in political deals; vote buying; union pandering and the welfare of the American citizen is lost somewhere between Reid's office and Pelosi's domain. Congress is the problem. The American citizen needs to vote the entire bunch out and put them on the unemployment line like many of us are. Obama went to the GOP conference with blame on his agenda. He has no desire to work with the minority party as demonstrated by his arrogant demeanor.

Dr. Alan PhillipsDr.

Meetings even when bi-partisan need to be addressing the creation and restoration of jobs.WHAT ABOUT BOB? HE SAYS THEY STILL DON’T GET IT!

The nation fortunately can still boast of journalists who care for and speak to the needs of people, putting elite interests last and people first. One such journalist is NY Times OP-ED columnist Bob Herbert who’s latest article in the January 23, 2010 edition of the paper states very simply “They Still Don’t Get it”. Basically, to examine his affirmation one must ask, what is it they don’t get, who comprises "they," and what have “they” known for months and still fail to understand or do anything about?

Herbert asks “How loud do alarms have to get?” He quickly identifies the items which are increasing the volume of the economic alarms in the nation, yet being largely ignored, they include;An economic emergency in America encompassing millions of people, filled with fear and anxiety over joblessness, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and shrinking opportunities for their families,

A closed door on the American dream not being meaningfully addressed by the politicians, including the president who seems out of contact with the miseries and day to day issues of most voters. Months wasted arguing over health insurance reform legislation characterized by back-room deals which at times have surrendered principle to give gifts to insurance companies, states, congressional demands and giant pharmaceuticals corporations.

Finally. there has been a lack of sensitivity to the public interest by political leaders. In fact Bob observes “There is no evidence that leaders of either party fully grasp the depth of the economic crisis which began long before the official start of the Great Recession in December 2007.” Bob’s article cites research to support his conclusion of Washington D.C.'s political insensitivity toward main street's tragedies.

A study from the Brooking's Institution identifies the largest and rapidly growing population of poor Americans is now in the suburbs. This study reveals that from 2000-2008 the number of poor in America grew by 5.2 million reaching a total of nearly 40 million or an increase of 15.4 percent. In 2008, 91.6 million Americans (more than 30 percent of the nation’s population)-fell below the federal poverty line or 21,834 for a family of four.

This article written by a serious journalist named Bob is a polemic against presidential rhetoric announcing stricter treatment of Wall Street while pretending to open the doors for capital to flow on Main Street. With the administration's preparation to embark on a deficit reduction detour, spending for needed programs, like infrastructure, will be retired to the policy cloakroom.

Yet, this journalist, along with many of his colleagues have, for several weeks, sounded the alarm of a nation at financial risk needing an action plan to bring it back from potential economic collapse. Government must stop ignoring the problem and doing nothing substantial about the public interest. Americans can expect more economic neglect in spite of presidential State of the Union rhetorical flourish.

Bringing back to the White House former campaign management from 2008 will not address Bob's alarms or forestall the continuing damage to the lives of the under and unemployed. The issue confronting the nation is not Congressional elections, it is loss of millions of American jobs.

China will continue to experience job growth as American Corporations are encouraged to produce goods in a Communist nation which eliminates large tax levies on companies and decent worker wages.

Focus on climatological legislation such as cap and trade, healthcare reform, deficit reduction by presidential committee, green jobs, income redistribution, and other rhetorical sidebars will be ineffective in restoring-creating jobs for the unemployed American voter.

Tragically, for many in American society, the power elites whether working on Wall Street, the White House or in Congress, will continue to enjoy the good life while little attention comes from the administration for the perishing job market and lost wages. Taxes should be immediately reduced on corporations and individuals by both the federal and state governments to jump start a true recovery.

We as a nation need meaningful change to survive and grow jobs through positive results not broken promises. Our constitution and founders have shown us the way to recovery, we need to let freedom flourish throughout every town and city in America. Let’s encourage entrepreneurship and the growth of small and large businesses. We can give major tax benefits to companies which reach a goal for new “hires.” Let’s eliminate foolish regulations so that all our citizens are free to work, hope and experience the American dream.

America is a great nation, the envy of the world, we have only fear blocking our path to new jobs, and we demonstrated once before in our history that when fear is eliminated, the nation prospers.

Let us join in supporting those who know we can bring this nation’s economy, with twenty million new jobs, back to life. In summary, Mr. President, Congress, what about Bob, his words face the problem up front. Thanks Bob!

andrew nelson

@Jon -- I think you went to the main issue in the conversation, quickly, " It's as if he [The President] thinks he's done enough already to incorporate selected GOP ideas into his proposals, without realizing that he's just cherry-picking instead of looking for real middle ground. " That set the tone for the whole discussion. This is just a new Democrat talking point, is all. It's not a real effort to reach across the isle. Nov 2, 2010, cannot come soon enough. This Democrat Administration and the Democrat Tyranny of control of both houses, needs to come to an end, soon.


I suggest Republican stance which focuses on past Democrat majority rule, as opposed to joining in for future job creation solutions NOW, is caused in part by what is considered an incumbent majority rule's effort to mitigate growing negative public opinion of excessive 'past' non-essential spending, ear marks and closed door decision making. How else can conservatives trust the collaborative joint job making approach without first establishing a minimum level of 'trust', less conservatives risk sustaining the current majority rule come Nov, 2010?


President Obama … Community Organizer Supreme
I see two major political happenings in Washington as a result of the Minor Change in the Senate …
First …. Leveraging … not the type in investment circles where you borrow against some asset to get another asset but political leveraging. Watch and see there will be political leveraging of legislation that you have never seen before. Cap and Trade, Financial Regulation, Healthcare Regulation, will all be leveraged one against the other. This is what is called in the political parlors … Compromise.
Second … Think about the Psychological affect on the Political World or for that matter the World in general. Here is a man, Barack Obama was born at Kapi'olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States, to Stanley Ann Dunham, an American of predominantly English descent from Wichita, Kansas, and Barack Obama, Sr., a Luo from Nyang’oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province, Kenya Colony. His main credentials stated … he was a lawyer from a prestigious school and a community organizer and State legislator and US Senator. Little did anyone imagine that this community organizer would become “The” I say “The Community Organizer” of the most Powerful Nation in the World.
Think about all the old f-rts that have had their day in the sun. Think of the old f-rts that have been working to have a place in the sun. Now all they can do is attempt to get in the legislative way of this amazing Community Organizer. Don’t be surprised if the final Healthcare legislation is completed by the end of February.
I can see it now … the President entertains the Senate and the House power leaders. The conversation goes something like this ….
President … If you want to destroy the Healthcare, Cap and Trade legislations keep up the Liberal Whining else if you want to have a win, win, agree to pass this legislation less the Liberal Extreme requirements then go to your homes and win some more seats so that we can pass our entire agenda
Congressional leaders … in unison say … Thank you Mr. President that is a Great Idea.
President … Well ladies and gentlemen that appears to conclude our Community Organizational meeting for this year. G-d bless us all, G-d bless America, G-d bless the World.
So it is said so it will be written.
Minutes of Community Organizational Meeting taken by …
Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Secretary of State.

andrew nelson

@GordonSantaMonica -- Better life through chemistry?


I really never once heard President Obama "screaming" at any point in which he parried the every thrust of the Republican congress persons. There are
contraptions today that may be hooked up to a rerun of the pitiful confrontation to determine the decibels at every moment. Words should have referents and therefore, have accuracy in reportage. If not, it is detectable by most readers, unless the readers are reading through an ideologue's eye glasses, which will distort what is observed every time. Oh, well nothing changes, except the weather.

Jon Healey

@Grant - That was far too literal a translation of my final sentence, which was simply playing on the phrase "talking past each other." The intended meaning was that policymakers in this country can't seem to discuss policy without exchanging fire across the partisan divide. They're not just disagreeing, they're constantly on the rhetorical attack.



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