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'No political theatre', says the leading man

Mark Mardell | 17:43 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

"I hope that this isn't political theatre where we're just playing to the cameras and criticising each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem," said President Obama.

President Barack Obama

Perhaps it was a vain hope in a situation where 41 politicians from opposing parties are together in a room. He says he's exploring whether they can bridge the gap between them.

So far, it has been largely good-tempered, and there has been a real debate with people interrupting the president and challenging his assumptions.

Many had their own emotional stories. The president's was about his mother:

"My mother, who was self-employed, didn't have reliable healthcare, and she died of ovarian cancer. And there's probably nothing that modern medicine could have done about that. It was caught late, and that's a hard cancer to diagnose. But I do remember the last six months of her life - insurance companies threatening that they would not reimburse her for her costs, and her having to be on the phone in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies when what she should have been doing is spending time with her family. I do remember that."

Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee opened for the Republicans, saying the American people had rejected the current plans. He wanted the president to start over with a new bill focussing on reducing the costs of healthcare to the government:
Senator Lamar Alexander

"I was trying to think about if there were any kind of event that this could be compared with, and I was thinking of the Detroit Auto Show, that you'd invited us out to watch you unveil the latest model that you and your engineers had created and asked us to help sell it to the American people. And we go and you do that and we look at it and we say, that's the same model we saw last year, and we didn't like it and neither did they because we don't think it gets us where we need to go, and we can't afford it. So as they also say in Detroit, again, we think we have a better idea."

He warned that the Democrats should not use a method called budget reconciliation to push this through the Senate "like a freight train".

"Resist jamming it though in a partisan way," he said. The president replied that now was not the time to get into what would happen if the meeting failed, but reconciliation had been used 21 times in recent political history.

The key to the outcome may be the way the president is chairing this, firmly, making notes, trying to drag the Republicans into a concrete debate on detailed issues.

So far, he is succeeding. Rather curiously he is framed by a sprig of ivy and its shadow, part of a trompe l'oeil painting in the garden room of Blair House.

The building is where Lincoln tried to persuade Robert E Lee to command the Union army.

Pres Obama's task is just about as daunting. Indeed, the Republicans in the room are likely, like Robert E Lee, to decide they would rather fight for the other side. Gen Lee's eventual surrender after a long hard fight ended the civil war. But this president is far from certain of such a victory.


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