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Summit Diplomacy

During the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders would hold summit meetings every now and then, often to remind each other that, despite all the rivalry, both nations could agree on a few, basic things. Modest reductions in massive nuclear stockpiles, say. Now, after a largely party-line vote on the stimulus, it seems Americans need such meetings to sort out the differences among themselves. Or at least the politicians do.

Barack Obama conducted his first exercise in summit diplomacy as president today, convening a bi-partisan conference on fiscal responsibility. The diplomatic niceties were thick, the president hitting the theme of mutual interest hard: Obama insisted that Republicans and Democrats only differed on perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the content of the recently passed stimulus package. Everyone basically agreed, he said, that counter-cyclical payments such as food stamps and unemployment benefits needed pumping up. It should not be so hard to find accord on fixing the deficit. We’ll see.

But instead of simply ending the summit with a quick and cheery statement for the press, Obama did something that taxed my sense of the possible, still inured as I am to the ways of the Bush era: In front of the cameras, he conducted a 45-minute question-and-answer session with politicians from both parties and an assortment of policy wonks. He made a point of taking his first question from John McCain, who asked about out-of-control government procurement costs. And I couldn’t help but think back to when candidate McCain insisted that he would submit himself to regular, public grillings similar to those Britain’s prime minister must endure. A good idea, one I wished Obama had committed to during the campaign, as well. In response to McCain’s query, the president made news by saying that he didn’t feel like he needed the new, expensive fleet of helicopters he is currently scheduled to get.

Still, Obama surely didn’t do much today to bridge the major differences between the parties -- or even those within his own party -- over long-term entitlement spending. That would take a miracle -- and a fortune in political capital.

So do such atmospherics matter? Of course. Republican leaders may insist that the only way to attract GOP support is for the president to “compromise” by visibly adopting Republican policy in major bills. But when Congress-sized egos are involved, sometimes simple sucking up can get you somewhere. Hence Obama’s repeated shout-outs to conservative Republican leaders in his back-and-forth today. Failing to cater to the egos, meanwhile, can get you into lots of trouble. Think of June, 2001, when Jim Jeffords, a Republican senator from Vermont, left the GOP, his departure catalyzed in part by the slights President Bush and his party had dealt him. Jeffords’s defection handed control of the upper chamber to the Democrats.

Besides, the more Obama makes it seem like he is reaching out, the higher the price the Republicans will have to pay in order to oppose him. Obama’s persistence after failing to woo Republicans in the stimulus debate serves to paint GOP holdouts as obstinate. The interests of the president and of voters align -- at least to some degree. In the process, Americans get a president who puts himself on the spot in front of his critics and in front of the cameras. Done regularly, that might just lead to better policy, as well as to an opposition more willing to deal.

So what is the president cooking up for next week? A health-care summit.

By Stephen Stromberg  | February 23, 2009; 7:47 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Obama is doing all the right things to get the job done. I'm so happy we finally have a president who is smarter than most politicians. All to the good of the American people.

Posted by: SharonAustinTx | February 24, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I was fortunate enough to have tivo'ed it. It was great to see both sides being cordial, even when they voiced concern. Of course, nothing important transpired but, at least I know how great it can be.

Posted by: OK4obama | February 25, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

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