They're calling it Question Time, after the raucous weekly grilling of the British prime minister.
But in truth, President Obama's televised back-and-forth with the House Republicans in Baltimore on Friday was even tougher than a Westminster brawl. At least Gordon Brown can alternate between questions from the opposition parties and softballs from his own MPs.
“On the Republican side, there are a number of pieces in the State of the Union that put them in an awkward spot,” said one senior White House official.
Obama had no safe place to go in what was a mostly unscripted exchange. After his prepared remarks, the president riffed his way through a question and answer session in the lion's den. The White House strategy was to show that he was opening up the conversation, inviting ideas from all sides, and ready to reach across the aisle. After months of being caricatured as a radical socialist doing secret backroom deals, this was his moment to puncture the bubble.
It was a return to the renegade character of his presidential campaign, ready to take a televised gamble unlike any other president before him. President Bush had visited with Democrats in 2007, but the unpredictable questions were not on camera or transcribed for the press.
Under fire, the public having decidedly cooled on him, his agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, Obama has returned to what’s worked for him in the past: He’s gone on the offensive, in a return to the dynamics of the campaign trail. It began with the State of the Union address, and continued with a boisterous event in Tampa on Thursday. The session with House Republicans conjured the familiar dynamics of the 2008 debates. "The calm and level-headed responses, the back and forth with attendees, was actually him enjoying the back and forth," said one senior White House official. "We're all pretty sure he had a good time."
But the shift signaled more than a desire to loosen up and have fun. He’s also more actively engaging the opposition, determined to draw them off the sidelines—the GOP’s “party of no” strategy has clearly been working—and back into the game. Liberals may have faulted him for offering some Republican-friendly ideas in his State of the Union address. But those initiatives will also force the GOP to make choices—choices that will shift the narrative from the president’s troubles in keeping his majority together onto the fissures in Republican ranks.
• Reihan Salam: Now’s the GOP’s Time to Strike• Lee Siegel: How to Handle GOP Tantrums Scott Brown’s surprise win in Massachusetts may have a moment of Republican unity. But around the country, independents, the GOP base and the Tea Party grassroots activists are hardly one big happy family. Obama’s newest policy pitches will test whether traditional Chamber of Commerce Republicans actually have much in common with angry Tea Party populists, the Limbaugh crowd, and the ever-shifting independents.
First up on Friday was the idea of tax cuts for small businesses that either create jobs, lift wages or raise hours for employees. Small businesses will get a $5,000 tax credit for every net new employee created in 2010. If they raise wages or hours, they will be reimbursed for the higher Social Security payroll taxes.
Back in October, the idea gained bipartisan support and an endorsement from none other than Eric Cantor, the House GOP whip. “There is a lot of traction for this kind of idea,” Cantor told The New York Times. “If the White House will take the lead on this, I’m fairly positive it would be welcomed in a bipartisan fashion.” But a week later, Cantor seemed to walk away from the idea, telling The Hill there was a possibility of abuse of the credits.
If the GOP continues to oppose tax cuts for small businesses, its leaders will face the task of explaining not only what happened to that bipartisan support, but also why they would vote against a tax cut of any kind for small businesses that want to create jobs. That makes Friday's exchanges look relatively comfortable in comparison.
“On the Republican side, there are a number of pieces in the State of the Union that put them in an awkward spot,” said one senior White House official. “They are not opposed to a jobs tax credit and the president thinks it’s good policy. They put it forward and if they start opposing that now, it will look feckless.”
That is precisely the position seven GOP senators found themselves in last week, when they voted against setting up a bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility to deal with the budget deficits. The seven originally co-sponsored the bill, which failed by just seven votes. (Per Jake Tapper of ABC News, the magnificent seven in full: Robert Bennett of Utah, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John Ensign of Nevada, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and John McCain of Arizona.)
In fact President Obama’s first policy proposal in his State of the Union represented an even more stark challenge to the GOP: a choice between protecting some of the largest banks against a new tax, or siding with the popular outrage against Wall Street. The new bank fee, as the White House prefers to call it, is designed to recoup the bank bailout cash that has not been repaid.
“Now I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea,” Obama told Congress. “But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.”
But it’s not just Wall Street that isn’t keen. Judging from the firm refusal to applaud on the Republican side of the aisle on Wednesday night, the GOP is also less than keen on the new bank tax.
White House officials hope the new jobs package and financial measures will pass through Congress quickly by the spring.
The first of those Main Street-versus-Wall Street challenges is likely to be financial regulatory reform, which the president described as being opposed by banks. “The lobbyists are trying to kill it. But we cannot let them win this fight,” he said. “And if the bill that ends up on my desk does not meet the test of real reform, I will send it back until we get it right. We’ve got to get it right.”
If the GOP chooses to fight such reform, they can expect the president to lump them together with Wall Street’s biggest lobbyists. Furthermore, administration officials say the president’s threat sets a high bar for the normal horse-trading and turf battles that could weaken financial reform in the Senate.
Beyond the question of reforming Wall Street and the broader economy, Obama’s fighting talk also has a political benefit in an election year. As the president explained in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, he wants to see the GOP step up—while at the same time portraying himself as someone wanting to hear from a productive opposition.
“On every one of these issues my door remains open to good ideas from both parties,” he said. “I want the Republicans off the sidelines. I want them working with us to solve problems facing working families—not to score points. I want a partnership…I don’t want an attitude, “If Obama loses, then we win.” I mean, that can’t be a platform. Even if you disagree with me on some specific issues, all of us should be rooting for each other.”
But Obama has his work cut out for him. The “just say no” strategy has carried the GOP into an election year with momentum. Playing ball with Obama carries risks. And judging from the reaction to his Question Time and State of the Union, Republicans might just decide to say no a little longer.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.