Why Obama Needs to Keep Engaging the Republicans

With an uncertain future, a civil, open debate is most important.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

My old friend and fellow Bush #41 speechwriter Dan McGroarty recalled in the New York Times this weekend what it was like to write the President's first State of the Union address in 1990, and the lesson for Obama staffers today:

What we didn't see then from the high ground of Year One were any of the signal events of Year Two. The ill-fated deficit summit meeting at Andrews Air Force Base--a closed-door exercise that yielded the too-clever-by-180-I.Q.-points "tax revenue enhancements" as a substitute for the president's "read my lips" no-new-taxes pledge--was three months away. In six months, Saddam Hussein would roll tanks into Kuwait. In eight months, we would hit what economists would later pinpoint as the beginning of a recession, at roughly the time the White House national security team was focused on reuniting East and West Germany. Working in the White House was a daily lesson in politics and policy, and the critical difference between the two.

Seen through the lens of 20 years' time, what's telling now is the capriciousness of what we took to be the issues that would define a presidency.

President Obama was smart to meet with GOP house members last Friday, and he'd be well-advised to continue to meet and debate issues with them every month or two--and while he's at it, with the folks from Fox News, too--for the very reason McGroarty gives. Who knows what will happen in Year Two, what issues will emerge both here and overseas, or where the economy is headed. Andrew Sullivan posted the full hour-long question-and-answer session between Obama and the Republicans, with this comment: "It felt so good to watch and listen because it finally brought us a conversation--rather than a shouting match over a canyon. So much of American politics is debate conducted at a distance, through ads or soundbites or various talking points that never actually engage one another in debate." Keeping a civil and open debate going in Years Two, Three and Four could be the best thing ever--for both parties.