From NBC's Ali Weinberg
A day after speaking in front of cheering supporters, President Obama faced a respectful but markedly less warm crowd today, addressing the leaders of his party's opposition at the very forum where they will be planning their own political strategy.
While his opening salvo at today's House Republican Issues Retreat contained a call for cooperation, the president spent most of an hour-long question and answer session trading barbs with the opposition over matters of policy and politics.
Echoing a theme of his State of the Union address, Obama urged an end to partisan gridlock, saying, "Americans didn't send us to Washington to fight in some sort of political cage match to see who comes out alive." And he praised Republicans for their consensus on issues like national security and education, thanking them--as well as Democrats -- "for reaching across the aisle." But starting with the first question, from Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, on, President Obama was met with Republican claims that Democrats were overly dismissive of the GOP's ideas.
Referring to the stimulus under Democrats' Economic Recovery Act, Pence suggested Democrats forced "a piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts" through Congress to stave off the 8% unemployment rate, though unemployment has since climbed to 10%. Pence also asked if Democrats would be willing to accept an "across-the-board" tax cut that he said would have created twice as many jobs as half the cost of the Democratic plan.
Obama pushed back on the implication that skyrocketing unemployment was the direct result of his stimulus, citing the time frame of his presidency: "We had lost 650,000 jobs in December. I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that. We had lost, it turns out, 700,000 jobs in January, the month I was sworn in. I'm assuming it wasn't my administration's policies that accounted for that. We lost another 650,000 jobs the subsequent month, before any of my policies had gone into effect," Obama said.
Shifting to offense, Obama pointed out that one aspect of the Democratic plan--infrastructure investment--was later embraced by Republicans for political gain: "A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against."
Obama also addressed criticism from freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who voiced his disappointment that Democrats did not follow through on several promises that had originally inspired him, including broadcasting health care negotiations on C-SPAN and bringing lobbyists into senior White House positions.
"I applauded you when you said it, and was disappointed when you didn't," Chaffetz said.
Before Chaffetz could register more concerns, Obama asked for the floor. "That was a long list, so let me respond," Obama said, laughing. After explaining to Chaffetz the logistical impossibility of C-SPAN broadcasts and the nature of the lobbyists, "like a doctor who ran Tobacco-Free Kids," in his administration, he encouraged Chaffetz, as a new member of Congress, to work with his colleagues to change the tenor on Capitol Hill.
"The challenge I guess I would have for you as a freshman, is what are you doing inside your caucus to make sure that I'm not the only guy who is responsible for this stuff, so that we're working together, because this is going to be a process?" Obama told Chaffetz.