Surprise guest at White House briefing: Obama

In a surprise press appearance, the president pushes back against GOP demands for "bipartisanship"

Published February 9, 2010 7:46PM (EST)

President Barack Obama points as he takes questions during the daily press briefing at the White House, in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama points as he takes questions during the daily press briefing at the White House, in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)

President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room Tuesday -- and he kept up the pressure the administration has been applying to Republicans on everything from healthcare reform to jobs.

Just after a bipartisan meeting with leaders of Congress wrapped up, Obama strolled into the regularly scheduled (if, due to snow, poorly attended) daily press briefing -- his first extended solo time with the press since last July.  He didn't mince words.  "Bipartisanship depends on a willingness among both Democrats and Republicans to put aside matters of party for the good of the country," he said. "I won't hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won't hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience."

Republicans had just left the meeting and scoffed at the idea that the White House was actually interested in working with them. Take healthcare reform (cue the administration saying, "please"). "It's going to be very difficult to have bipartisan conversations with regard to a 2,700-page healthcare bill that the Democrat majority in the House and the Democrat majority in the Senate can't pass," House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters. "Why are we going to talk about a bill that can't pass? It really is time to scrap the bill and start over." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said more or less the same thing. "Why would they want to keep pushing something that the public is overwhelmingly against?" he asked. "The obvious answer is to put that measure on the shelf, start over."

A bipartisan summit on the issue is scheduled for two weeks from now, when Congress returns from its Presidents' Day break. And the GOP doesn't have high hopes for anything productive coming from itt. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the administration does not intend to reopen the legislative process -- they seem to just want to listen to what we have to say and move on," one senior GOP aide told Salon. "Fine. But you wasted an entire year doing exactly that. By taking that approach on healthcare, they drown out any efforts, post-stimulus, on jobs or any other of their priorities. And in the process, took a president with near-70 percent approval and drove him below 50. Nice work."

But the White House has been faster to fight back on attacks like that since the Massachusetts Senate special election, and Obama picked up that same message. "'Bipartisanship' can't be that I agree to all of the things that they believe in or want and they agree to none of the things I believe in or want, and that's the price of bipartisanship, right?" he said. The healthcare summit can't just be "political theater," the president said. And he made clear he still wants to push ahead. "The public has soured on the process that they saw over the past year," he said. "I think that actually contaminates how they view the substance of the bills."

In his last session with the press back in July,  a prime-time news conference that also focused on healthcare reform, Obama waded into the Henry Louis Gates Jr./ Cambridge police controversy, which led to the much-mocked beer summit -- perhaps explaining the lack of similar sessions these past seven months. But reporters have started grumbling lately, so Obama dropped in on an otherwise slow news day.

Obama also pushed for Congress to act fast on a jobs bill -- but the House has already gone on recess, thanks to the winter storms pummeling D.C. lately, and won't be able to vote on anything until the week of Feb. 22 at the earliest. In the end, the meeting Tuesday, and Obama's impromptu presser, aren't likely to do much to actually move legislation along. But the White House tone could help change voters' minds about who's to blame if it stalls.

UPDATE: Watch Obama's appearance here:

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By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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