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New York Times - Camus Fired Up

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Location: Washington, DC

It began as a bit of partisan gamesmanship and ended, surprisingly, as illuminating political theater.

White House advisers thought that if they asked that cameras and reporters be allowed in for the usually closed Q. and A. with the president at the annual retreat of House Republicans, the Republicans might say no and look obstructionist.

But the Republicans realized what the White House was up to, got irritated and opened up the exchange in Baltimore to show they weren't scared of the smart, facile and newly warmblooded Barack Obama.

And during the next hour and a half, our government did not look quite so lame.

Obama is always at his best when his back is against the wall, and he is perversely content when he has the challenge of the lion's den.

He may lapse back into his Camus coma at any moment. But on Friday he dropped the diffident debutante act and offered, as he did at the State of the Union, some welcome gumption.

"You know," he said, halfway through his sparring session with Republicans, "I'm having fun."

When he was running for president, John McCain said that if he won, he would regularly take questions in the peppering style of the British prime minister in the House of Commons.

But it was Obama who ended up doing just such a Ping-Pong session, standing in a hotel ballroom and giving as good he got, to-ing and fro-ing in a far more vivid way than in the presidential debates.

The president chided his audience for casting his health care plan as a "Bolshevik plot" and for telling folks back home that he's "doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America." But Obama also acknowledged that the Republicans have some good ideas, and that, as it turned out, was what they yearned to hear.

In the end, the Republicans may well go back to being inflexibly inflexible with this president, but for a moment in time, each side realized that the other side had something to say. It was, as The Times's reporters Peter Baker and Carl Hulse called it, a televised marriage-therapy session "as each side vented grievances pent up after a year of partisan gridlock."

The Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz picked up on the president's line in the State of the Union about "a deficit of trust."

"We didn't create this mess, but we are here to help clean it up," the freshman member said, before ticking off a litany of things that have soured many Americans on the president who came in trailing fairy dust.

"When you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-Span, you didn't," he said.

And another good one: "You said you weren't going to allow lobbyists in the senior-most positions within your administration, and yet you did."

And another: "You said you'd go line by line through the health care bill. And there were six of us, including Dr. Phil Roe, who sent you a letter and said we would like to take you up on that offer. ... We never got a call."

And this rousing finale: "And when you said in the House of Representatives that you were going to tackle earmarks and in fact you didn't want to have any earmarks in any of your bills, I jumped out of my seat and applauded you."

But that was another disappointment.

Obama hedged on a technicality on the health care question, noting that "overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-Span because it was taking place in Congressional hearings in which you guys were participating."

When Peter Roskam of Illinois complained that they'd been "stiff-armed" by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president promised to bring the Republican and Democratic House leadership together for more play dates.

In a way, it was the sort of civic affairs master class that this college-bowl president had wanted from the beginning, before it began to look like W., Cheney and Rove had truly smashed bipartisanship.

But he didn't hesitate to give Jeb Hensarling a smack-down when the rabid ideologue from Texas asked if the president's new budget, "like your old budget," would "triple the national debt."

Obama crisply told "Jim," inadvertently (perhaps) mixing up Jeb's name, "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." Then the president offered a quick math lesson on what Republicans never admit: that it was W. and the Republican Congress who ran up much of our $12 trillion debt and left us pawning our family jewels to the Chinese.

Obama's advisers must wish they could do this every week for the cameras. It was a lot more elucidating than Joe Wilson shouting, "You lie!"


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