Obama's refreshing outreach to the opposition

Baltimore Sun

"Come now, let us reason together ..." Isaiah 1:18


A few words about that important speech President Barack Obama gave last week. No, not that important speech, the other one.

Granted, Mr. Obama's State of the Union address was the one parsed, sifted and winnowed by pundits for clues as to where he wishes to take the country in the days ahead. But one could argue that in its way, a less-noticed speech two days later in Baltimore tells us as much if not more about the intentions and ambitions of this president.

Not so much about specific policy and legislative initiatives. But Mr. Obama's speech before a gathering of GOP representatives and the freewheeling, unscripted Q&A; that followed spoke volumes about how he proposes to make those initiatives reality: i.e., through civil negotiation, compromise and consensus - things that have been scarce in the public sphere since the days of Jheri curls and power suits, if not longer.

If you haven't seen the video of the session, you should. It's easily found on YouTube and on the White House Web site ( www.whitehouse.gov). While it takes a while to view, it is worth the investment of time. You will seldom see a more riveting political exchange. Or one more oddly hopeful.

You have to wonder, after all, what Mr. Obama thought he stood to gain. If the meeting offered Republicans a chance to refute the Democratic contention that they are a party of no ideas, it is harder to see any immediate political gain for the president, especially considering that last year's attempt to reach out to the GOP was rebuffed by them and drew mixed reviews.

So no, there was not a lot of evident upside in Mr. Obama's decision to renew the effort. That being the case, one is forced to consider that maybe political gain wasn't the point. Maybe he means it. Maybe he is in earnest when he says he wants to see a new model of governance.

In last week's session, Mr. Obama was energetic and effective in defending his administration from attack ads disguised as questions. He also accepted his party's share of responsibility for the "sour" state of Washington politics. But time and again, he returned to the need to draw back from the shrill, slash-and-burn tactics and rhetoric that reached a high mark - or, if you prefer, a low mark - last year. If only, he said, because such behavior makes it nearly impossible for deals to be made or compromise done. And that's the very soul of governance in a democracy.

"Many of you," said Mr. Obama, "if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America. And I would just say that we have to think about tone."

Yes, there is nothing inherently wrong - indeed, there is something inherently "right" - with our adversarial system. But that's not what we've had these last years. No, we've had a system of hyperpartisanship, intellectual dishonesty and reflexive ideology, of permanent argument but no real attempt at solution or persuasion.

The price of which has been high: a nation cleaved in two, a people who no longer seem to like, trust or believe in one another. So if Mr. Obama's asking the opposition party - and his own - to behave as if their words and deeds have consequences is not good short-term tactics, it is still a welcome counterweight to this era of divide and conquer politics.

Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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