WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2010— -- President Obama appealed for bipartisanship from the podium of the White House briefing room today, calling on Democrats and Republicans to "put aside matters of party," while condemning the "obstinacy" that he says is rooted in "political expedience."
"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."
The president said Americans are tired of every day being Election Day in Washington and they expect a "seriousness of purpose that transcends petty politics."
Today was the first time since July that Obama has taken questions from the press in a formal setting. The president had just emerged from a bipartisan, bicameral meeting with leaders from Capitol Hill on how to work together on jobs and economy.
Obama joked that the meeting went so well that "McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together."
While that may not be the case, the president said both parties understand that while there are "legitimate and genuine differences between the parties," that many issues are ones where they can and should agree.
Obama faced questions about whether he agrees with calls from Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, for the health care overhaul bills to be scrapped and for the process to start over again from scratch.
The president has called for another bicameral, bipartisan meeting on Feb. 25 on health care reform, which he said today he looks forward to as a "constructive debate."
He said the plans brought to the table then by Republicans and Democrats must be measured against the following test:
"Does it bring down costs for all Americans, as well as for the federal government, which spends a huge amount of health care? Does it provide adequate protection against abuses by the insurance industry?" he asked. "Does it make coverage affordable and available to the tens of millions of working Americans who don't have it right now? And does it help us get on a path of fiscal sustainability?"
The White House has indicated that the president is not willing to walk away from the House and Senate bills, and Obama said today his call for a health care forum later this month would be, in essence, "starting from scratch" because he is still open to ideas that promote his requirements for reform.
"What I will not do, what I don't think makes sense, and I don't think the American people want to see, would be another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months or eight months or nine months worth of hearings in every single committee, in the House and the Senate, in which there's a lot of posturing," he said.
The president said when the parties are together, and the best ideas are on the table, he hopes there will be enough overlap, even if not everyone -- including him -- gets every single thing they want.
"Bipartisanship can't be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things I believe in and want, and that's the price of bipartisanship, right, but that's sometimes the way it gets presented," Obama said.
"I'm willing to move off some of the preferences of my party, in order to meet them halfway," he said. "But there's got to be some give from their side as well. That's true on health care. That's true on energy. That's true on financial reform. That's what I'm hoping gets accomplished at this summit."
Health Care Summit
Asked if the health care summit would include economists and public-interest groups, as Republicans have called for, the president said the White House has not "refined" the agenda.
He indicated that he wants some non-partisan voices, like the Congressional Budget Office, are included to make sure that facts are debated, not opinions.
"If we can establish that factual accuracy about how different approaches would work, then I think we can make some progress. And it may be that some of the facts that come up are ones that make my party a little bit uncomfortable," he said.
"So you know, if it's established that by working seriously on medical malpractice and tort reform that we can reduce some of those costs, I've said from the beginning of this debate I'd be willing to work on that," he said. "On the other hand, if I'm told that that is only a fraction of the problem and that is not the biggest driver of health-care costs, then I'm also going to insist, OK, let's look at that as one aspect of it, but what else are we willing to do?"
Obama liked this process to his marriage with the first lady.
"Bipartisanship cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship," he said. "That's not how it works, you know, in any other realm of life. That's certainly not how it works in my marriage with Michelle, although I usually do give in most of the time. But the -- there's got to be some give and take, and that's what I'm hoping can be accomplished."
Obama used the example of how Anthem Blue Cross, the largest insurer in California, is planning to raise premiums for many individual policy holders by as much as 39 percent.
"If we don't act, this is just a preview of coming attractions," the president said. "Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance. Millions more will lose their coverage altogether. Our deficits will continue to grow larger."
One of the reasons Anthem Blue Cross says that it's raising its premiums is because so many people are dropping out of indicial coverage because the economy's so bad, much of which has to do with businesses being uncertain about legislation in Washington.
"The sooner the business community has a sense that we've got our act together here in Washington and can move forward on big, serious issues in a substantive way without a lot of posturing and partisan wrangling, I think the better off the entire country's going to be," Obama said.
Obama on Jobs: The Number One Priority
Obama said during his meeting with House and Senate leadership today there was a large discussion about the jobs bill being debated on the Hill.
While calling for additional ideas, all of which he said he will consider, the president said what he won't consider "is doing nothing in the face of a lot of hardships across the country."
Few issues are treated with as much "vigorous bipartisan agreement" in public, while facing "a lot of partisan wrangling behind closed doors," as the issue of restoring fiscal responsibility.
"For us to solve this extraordinary problem that is so many years in the making, it's going to take the cooperation of both parties. It's not going to happen in any other way," the president said.
He reiterated his call for a bipartisan fiscal commission, which recently was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. He said he would create the commission by executive order.
The president said both parties have to be serious in the effort and put politics aside.
"Our fiscal challenge is not subject to interpretation. Math is not partisan. There ought to be a debate about how to close our deficits," he said. "What we can't accept is business as usual, and we can't afford grandstanding at the expense of actually getting something done."
The president said he thinks it is "realistic" to get a package moving quickly in the Senate, and outlined areas where he believes they can get agreement between Democrats and Republicans: the idea of eliminating capital gains for small businesses, and a mechanism to get community banks who are lending to small businesses more capital
Federal Nominees: Don't Delay and Obstruct
Within his bipartisanship-heavy message, the president sent the message to the Senate to not delay the confirmation process of positions in government that have been held up.
"I respect the Senate's role to advise and consent, but for months qualified, non-controversial nominees for critical positions in government, often positions related to our national security, have been held up despite having overwhelming support."
Obama mentioned the hold-up by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who until Monday of was holding up more than 70 pending presidential nominees.
"That's not advise and consent; that's delay and obstruct," Obama said. "One senator, as you all are aware, had put a hold on every single nominee that we had put forward, due to a dispute over a couple of earmarks in his state."
The president said that in his meeting today he asked the congressional leadership to put a stop to these holds and set aside partisanship. If not, he warned, he will move without them.
"I made this very clear -- if the Senate does not act to confirm these nominees, I will consider making several recess appointments during the upcoming recess, because we can't afford to allow politics to stand in the way of a well-functioning government," he said.
Obama said his administration is working on "a significant regime of sanctions" aimed at Iran after Teheran rejected an offer to sit down and negotiate the future of its nuclear programs and ambitions.
"We are going to be looking at a variety of ways in which countries indicate to Iran that their approach is unacceptable," the president said of the next steps, adding that the United Nations will be "one aspect of that broader effort."
Obama said the United States has "bent over backwards" to say to Iran that it is willing to engage in a "constructive conversation" about cooperating with the international community.
Obama did not outline a timeline for sanctions. He said the international community is united in its stance against "Iran's misbehavior," but added that it remains to be seen how China will approach this at the U.N. Security Council. The president said he is pleased with how "forward-leaning" the Russians have been on this issue.
Obama said there are "different, mixed signals" coming from Iran and "it's not always clear who's speaking on behalf of the government."
"Despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, that they, in fact, continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization, and that is not acceptable to the international community, not just to the United States," the president said.
Obama called himself "an eternal optimist" and said he thinks Republicans and Democrats can come together to draft bipartisan comprehensive energy reform.
He said both sides of the coin need to be considered: pushing for development of new, green technologies as well as continued support for what he deemed "old traditional energy sources" to produce jobs and economic growth.
The president said the key question is how to draft an energy package that includes "safe, secure nuclear power," incorporates new technology to continuing using coal and increases oil and gas production in an environmentally sustainable way.
"My hope is that when my Republican friends, but also Democrats, say to themselves, 'Let's be practical, and let's do both, let's not just do one or the other, let's do both,' over time I think the transition is going to be more and more clean energy, and over time fossil fuels become less prominent in our overall energy mix," he said.
At a town hall in Nashua, N.H., last week, Obama said the "controversial" cap and trade mechanism that was approved by the House could be considered separately in the Senate as it develops energy reform legislation.
"We may be able to separate these things out, and it's conceivable that that's where the Senate ends up," he said. "But the concept of incentivizing clean energy so that it's the cheaper, more effective kind of energy, is one that is proven to work and is actually a market-based approach."