BALTIMORE (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday engaged in a rare face-to-face showdown with Republican critics and testily accused them of trying to block his policies while urging them to “join with me” in creating jobs.
The contentious 82-minute session showed the depth of the political divide that separates Democrats who control the U.S. Congress and Republicans who feel their ideas on the economy and healthcare are ignored.
That Obama agreed to not only address his opponents but take their questions live on cable television was a sign of how he is trying to dig out of his deepest political rut since taking office a year ago.
Facing his Republican critics two days after a State of the Union speech aimed at reconnecting with the public, Obama sought to counter his rivals’ attempt to paint him as a big-spending liberal who only wants to expand government.
He accused Republicans of portraying his now-stalled healthcare reform effort as a “Bolshevik plot” and telling their constituents he is “doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.”
“I am not an ideologue,” Obama insisted to his audience, prompting some murmuring of disagreement in the crowd. “I’m not.”
Assailing Republicans for trying to obstruct him on everything from economic stimulus to healthcare, Obama suggested their political motive was to score points with voters in the November congressional elections.
“These are serious times and what’s required of all of us is to do what’s right for our country, even if it’s not best for our politics,” Obama said.
The event was the annual retreat of Republican members of the House of Representatives. They tried Obama’s patience on a number of occasions by asking questions that were basically statements of their beliefs.
An example came from Representative Jeb Hensarling, who asked: “Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy? That’s the question, Mr. President.”
Obama complained that “the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.”
With his own poll numbers down and his presidency faltering after his first year, Obama has launched a drive this week to show Americans that he understands their economic pain.
A shocking Republican win last week in an election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts has cast much of Obama’s agenda in doubt and jolted him into reshaping priorities to address the public’s frustration about 10 percent unemployment. He used his State of the Union speech to declare jobs his top concern.
Obama’s foray among his critics seemed unlikely to forge much bipartisan cooperation, although there was the possibility of unity on such issues like spending cuts and permitting construction of nuclear power plants.
Republicans sense a chance to seize on the sour public mood to make electoral gains against Democrats who control Congress in November elections.
House Republican leader John Boehner said after the session that he thought the dialogue went well and that he hoped the president saw that there are some areas on which they can agree if Democrats will only listen.
For Obama, however, it was also a chance to try to frame the congressional campaign debate on his own terms.
Taking on his opponents, Obama did not mince words.
He slammed blanket Republican opposition to a $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed by the Democratic-led Congress last year, saying despite that opposition, some Republican lawmakers appeared at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts funded by the program.
And he insisted that Friday’s government report of 5.7 percent economic growth for the fourth quarter showed his efforts to jump-start the economy were working.
While acknowledging double-digit unemployment could not be tolerated, Obama also reminded the lawmakers of the high joblessness and huge budget deficit he had inherited from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Lawmakers applauded Obama politely and gave him a respectful hearing, but they challenged his policies openly during a contentious question-and-answer session.
The president, known for his “No-drama Obama” demeanor, grew testier as the session wore on.
When Georgia congressman Tom Price charged that Obama had repeatedly accused Republicans of offering “no ideas and no solutions,” Obama shot back, “I don’t think I said that.”
But Obama also appealed to Republicans to work to find common ground and show Americans their parties can move beyond partisan rancor that he has promised to end in Washington.
He cited a bank bailout tax, closing tax loopholes for firms that ship jobs overseas and a three-year spending freeze on some domestic programs for potential agreement.
“Join with me,” he said. “Let’s do this together, Republicans and Democrats.”
Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland, additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Jackie Kucinich; Editing by David Storey