Friday, January 29, 2010

The President Attempts to Tame the GOP.

Here is the President giving Congressional Republicans what I would call the full University of Chicago treatment. For those not familiar with the traditions of that institution, you should understand that the University of Chicago prides itself on tolerating a wide range of intellectual viewpoints. It is a place that not only values freedom of thought and expression, but one that actually encourages students and faculty to listen carefully to opposing points of view, and to debate them in a civil tone. I attended law school at the University of Chicago, and Barack Obama later taught there part time for quite a few years. It was a bastion of conservative thought when I was there, but still included students and faculty with a wide range of views. I never met as many smart Republicans as I did when I was in law school. Probably the most valuable thing I learned at the U of C was that it is possible to have a civil and respectful conversation with people with whom you strongly disagree. Anyplace that encourages those kinds of conversations should be treasured. Watching this video, I wondered whether the President is trying to bring that atmosphere to the United States Congress.

It is important to understand that holding this kind of dialogue doesn't require that you pull any punches, or that you concede anything to your adversaries, other than what you have to concede if you want to be intellectually honest. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the president's idea of bi-partisanship requires that he give up his principles, or roll over for his opponents. As can be seen in this video, however, that is not at all what the president is doing. He is forceful and hard-hitting, and makes as strong a case as he can for his positions. The only thing he asks is that the tone of the debate be respectful: that participants listen to the other side, find areas of agreement where they can, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and try not to misrepresent each other's positions. In other words, let's have an honest and fair debate.

Is it possible that such an approach could succeed in making a few Republican members of Congress think twice about the strategy of blanket opposition to everything the administration proposes? The President makes a good case that not only is such opposition difficult to defend on the merits, it may not even be good politics, because it backs the Republicans into a corner where they cannot even support positions that they know are useful and necessary. But more importantly, Obama makes a good effort at demonstrating that facts and logic may be more powerful tools in exposing your political adversaries than hyperbole and counter-denunciation. Let's hope this effort helps tone down the negativity, and ushers in some civility to political debates.


  1. I think the mouthpiece that Fox News has given to the "Tea Party" elements of the Republican Party is making it very hard for these guys to take measured positions on the issues. (Note all the ridiculous GOP flip-flopping in the Senate this week on the budget advisory panel legislation.) Successful legislating requires an ability to compromise, and this has been a dirty word - IN PUBLIC - in the House for some years now.

    In reality, quiet conversation between the president and the leadership of the opposition in House and Senate goes on all the time in quiet conversation at the White House. What makes this remarkable is that the back-benchers were invited, and that it was televised.

  2. The Republicans should learn to play fair in public. But my guess is that they will not want to do one of these sessions again because they lose in a fair debate, and they don't sound good to their base when they act reasonable.