When the Republicans extended an invitation to President Obama to speak at their retreat, I expect that many of them were surprised that he agreed to walk into the lion's den. Giving a persuasive speech to a hostile audience is always difficult, but it's generally agreed that the best way to start is to lay out common points of agreement and Obama managed to garner applause several times. He pointed out the bi-partisan support for the US military and the continued with a long list of things in which the Democrats and Republicans agreed upon. In fact, one of the most telling points — and one which will be largely ignored in the press — was when Obama pointed out that amongst world governments, the US Democrats and Republicans have relatively few differences.
Then he came out swinging, but in a decidedly polite fashion. He mentioned polls which showed that most Americans disagreed with the stimulas package, but overwhelmingly supported it when it was presented on a point-by-point basis. Again, this is something which will be largely ignored. He expressed his confusion at the widespread Republican opposition to his tax cuts for 95% of Americans even though said tax cuts are largely what the Republicans constantly insist upon. What's worse, he expressed frustration at how many proposals were attacked before before they were even described. His speech on how the politics of demonization — which he repeatedly made clear was an issue on both sides — made bi-partisanship almost impossible. You can't turn around and vote for a proposal which you've repeatedly told your constituents is a Bolshevik plot. You have no maneuvering room.
What truly showed his strength, though, was when he took questions for an hour after his speech. Many of these questions were hostile and some were clearly political pandering and Obama called them out on that.
What was truly impressive was how he reminded the Republicans, again and again, about how he took their ideas into consideration and how many of those ideas went into bills that were put forward. He also explained many of the Republican bills, showing that he not only read them and understood them, but also was careful to detail how even on Republican ideas he agreed with, he was carefully thinking through the consequences and working to minimize negative effects. He even owned up to some of his mistakes. Remember how our last President struggled to think of any mistakes he made? Obama was forthright about errors, though some of his answers seemed like painful circumlocutions to avoid some of the more painful topics.
It would be truly difficult for anyone to watch both Obama's speech and his question and answer session and claim the he's not willing to listen to Republicans. He also pledged that he's going to rectify his failure to bring Democrats and Republicans closer together and he'll work harder to bring the party leadership together for more open discussion. I suspect this was a carefully worded pledge to the Republicans to curb the perception of Pelosi's strong-arming of Republicans.
Was this a game changer? Will we see more bi-partisanship in the future? Immediately after the speech and Q and A, the Republicans appeared to shift tactics slightly, toning down criticism of Obama and blasted the Democratic Congressional leadership. I expect very little to come out of this other than interesting news stories. I hope I am wrong.