Obama's Radical New Discourse

By Dan Froomkin
11:39 AM ET, 02/24/2009

President Obama yesterday modeled a dramatic new form of discourse for the White House -- a possible antidote to the sound-bite culture of modern politics -- in which people with different views come together to engage in a respectful dialogue.

Some 130 Democratic, Republican and community leaders met in intense but collegial "breakout" groups on key issues related to the country's fiscal health for over two hours at the White House yesterday afternoon. They then gathered in an auditorium where Obama calmly and commandingly called on more than a dozen of them -- starting with his vanquished foe, Republican Senator John McCain -- to share their thoughts.

My favorite immediate response came from MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall, who marveled moments after the summit wrapped up: "The tone was very different than what we hear when people are guests on the show." It sure was.

Here's the transcript. "My sense is that, despite partisan differences, despite regional differences and different priorities, everybody is concerned about the legacy we're leaving to our children," Obama said. "And the hope was, is that if we had a forum like this to start talking about these issues that it would turn out that there are real opportunities for progress -- there are going to be some areas where we can't make progress -- but that we have more in common that we expect. And I appreciate that while we may have different opinions, there's a renewed willingness to put some concrete ideas on the table, even on those issues that are politically tough, and that's real progress."

Mark Miller, of the liberal Center for American Progress, told MSNBC's Hall: "What you saw here was a really genuine attempt by a president who's very comfortable dealing with the substance, to engage political leaders across the spectrum....It's like a national teach-in almost, and I think this will be the first of what will be a number of things we see Obama do in this vein to both teach people about the problems and create a climate to get past just the finger-pointing and come together to solve problems."

Steve Holland of Reuters likened the session to "a polite version of British 'question time' in which the prime minister engages in back-and-forth with members of parliament."

Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press called Obama the "facilitator in chief" and wrote that he "showed his hand as both a policy wonk and a gracious host — to allies and adversaries alike.

"Easygoing though always in charge, Obama melded serious talk about ways to control the exploding federal deficit with frequent doses of humor and familiarity. That mix provided moments of levity that defused what could have been a tense session of finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats on a painfully dry subject — fiscal policy."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank mocked certain elements of the event, but concluded: "For all the no-shows and the lack of planning, the summit had, in the end, provided something of value: a rare, public back-and-forth between the president, lawmakers and interest groups."

Obama said the approach was particularly necessary for such central issues as health care, where there are a lot of tradeoffs and "no perfect solutions.

"But in the sound bite, political culture that we got, it's very hard to communicate that. And we think that it's very important to have some forums -- and I talked about this during -- way back in the primary campaign, that there is a process that the public can listen to about what these tradeoffs are, because I think that some of us get on our high horse and say we've got the answer to health care. Well, it turns out that, you know, there are costs involved on the front end even if the benefits accrue in the out years. There are situations in terms of people, if they've got health insurance, sort of liking what they've got now, they just want it for cheaper. There are issues in terms of providers and them feeling like they're getting squeezed.

"And so making sure that all that stuff is surfaced in public and we're educating the public on some of these issues can be very important if we're going to make progress because -- you know, some of these things will ultimately involve some tough decisions and some tough votes."

Obama's exchange with McCain was substantive -- and humorous.

McCain, who had participated in the breakout session on procurement, said that the issue that "consumed a lot of our conversation on procurement was the issue of cost overruns in the Defense Department." And as an example, he raised a matter close to home. "We all know that the cost overruns -- your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money."

Obama replied: "Well, John, let me -- this is going to be one of our highest priorities. By the way, I've already talked to [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. (Laughter.) Of course, I've never had a helicopter before -- (laughter) -- maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. (Laughter.)

"But I think it is a -- it is a -- an example of the procurement process gone amuck. And we're going to have to fix it. Our hope is, is that you, Senator [Carl] Levin, and others, can really take some leadership on this."

(As a result, R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post today that "prospects for building a new fleet of high-tech presidential helicopters darkened" after what "amounted to a shot across the bow of large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, the helicopter's manufacturer.")

Obama called on several other Republicans, including House Whip Eric Cantor. When Democratic Sen. Tom Carper urged Obama to continue his outreach, he replied: "Well, I will certainly do that, Tom, because I'm just a glutton for punishment. (Laughter.) I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day, sooner or later, he is going to say, boy, Obama had a good idea. (Laughter.) It's going to happen. You watch, you watch. (Laughter.)"

In perhaps the most striking contrast to events in the Bush White House, where the opposition was rarely seen and never heard, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) challenged Obama to pressure the House's Democratic leaders to include Republicans in the bill-writing process. "I think the House Republicans have shown that when we're not included in the decision-making, we're disinclined to sign off on the solution," Barton noted dryly.

Obama called that "an important point," but responded : "[O]n the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive. On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive.

"And so to the extent that on many of these issues we are able to break out of sort of the rigid day-to-day politics and think long term, then what you should see, I think, is the majority saying, what are your ideas; the minority has got to then come up with those ideas and not just want to blow the thing up. And I think that on some of these issues, we're going to have some very real differences and, you know, presumably the majority will prevail unless the minority can block it. But you're just going to have different philosophical approaches to some of these problems."

Indeed, while preaching -- and modeling -- civility, Obama didn't gloss over his differences with the previous administration. In his opening remarks at the summit, Obama blamed former president George W. Bush for the fix he's in -- and for engaging in budget subterfuge.

"We cannot, and will not, sustain deficits like these without end. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation," Obama said.

"And that's why today I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office. This will not be easy. It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we've long neglected. But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay -- and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control.

"We'll start by being honest with ourselves about the magnitude of our deficits. For too long, our budget process in Washington has been an exercise in deception -- a series of accounting tricks to hide the extent of our spending and the shortfalls in our revenue and hope that the American people won't notice: budgeting certain expenditures for just one year, when we know we'll incur them every year for five or 10; budgeting zero dollars for the Iraq war -- zero -- for future years, even when we knew the war would continue; budgeting no money for natural disasters, as if we would ever go 12 months without a single flood, fire, hurricane or earthquake.

"We do ourselves no favors by hiding the truth about what we spend. In order to address our fiscal crisis, we're going to have to be candid about its scope. And that's why the budget I will introduce later this week will look ahead 10 years, and will include a full and honest accounting of the money we plan to spend and the deficits we will likely incur."

(Christi Parsons and Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times have more on the exclusions, unrealistic assumptions, and accounting tricks that were part of the Bush budget process.)

Obama continued: "[I]f we want to rebuild our economy and restore discipline and honesty to our budget, we will need to change the way we do business here in Washington. We're not going to be able to fall back into the same old habits, and make the same inexcusable mistakes: the repeated failure to act as our economy spiraled deeper into crisis; the casual dishonesty of hiding irresponsible spending with clever accounting tricks; the costly overruns, the fraud and abuse, the endless excuses. This is exactly what the American people rejected when they went to the polls.

"They sent us here to usher in a new era of responsibility in Washington -- to start living within our means again, and being straight with them about where their tax dollars are going, and empowering them with the information they need to hold all of us, their representatives, accountable."

Despite all the speculation -- both alarmed and enthusiastic -- that "entitlement reform" would be the theme of yesterday's summit, the central topic, as I predicted in a post on Friday, Obama's Sense of Entitlements, was clearly health care.

Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "President Obama will make reforming the U.S. health-care system his top fiscal priority this year, administration officials said yesterday, contending that reining in skyrocketing medical costs is critical to saving the nation from bankruptcy....

"The White House budget director, Peter Orszag, delivered a forceful argument for keeping Washington's focus, for now, on slowing 'the growth rate in health-care costs,' calling it 'the single most important thing we can do to improve the long-term fiscal health of our nation.'

"'Let me be very clear: Health-care reform is entitlement reform. The path of fiscal responsibility must run directly through health care,' Orszag said...

"Although the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress this month, along with bailouts for the nation's financial system, has bloated this year's budget deficit, administration officials and many outside experts contend that the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid, the federal health programs for the elderly and the poor, present a far greater threat to the nation's long-term financial stability."

Michael Kranish and Lisa Wangsness write in the Boston Globe: "The effort to overhaul healthcare and extend insurance to most Americans has vexed politicians in Washington for decades. There had been discussion among analysts in the last month about whether the Obama administration might try to wrap healthcare into a 'grand bargain' that would also include overhauls of Social Security and Medicare.

"But Obama aides said that the president wants to work on healthcare separately and 'made it clear they want to focus on healthcare first,' according to Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who took part in the summit."

Here are the pool reports from the breakout sessions on Social Security, tax reform, health care, the budget process and procurement.

In one rare example of consensus, incidentally, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa told Obama: "Mr. President, it was kind of a surprise in the procurement group that was together, we had almost universal recognition that over the last decade or so, we've overdone, in some cases, outsourcing of critical federal requirements, and that means that in many cases we spend more to hire a contractor or a non-federal worker than we would pay to invest in federal workers.

"And so there was universal -- Republican, Democrat, House and Senate, even -- (laughter) -- that during this administration we need to assess where we can re-federalize some parts of the workforce, particularly when it came to people who do get procurement and oversee the procurement."

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