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President Barack Obama speaks during his opening remarks in a bipartisan meeting to discuss health reform legislation with congressional members at the Blair House Thursday.
updated 2/25/2010 4:25:56 PM ET 2010-02-25T21:25:56

So why did the president cross the road?

To get to the other side of the political aisle.

And this is what Barack Obama found at his health care summit: a made-for-television seminar of American politics filled with moments the cameras never caught. There were smirks, smiles and staredowns. Republicans and Democrats came together, all right — so packed around a table that some could barely move.

Whether the event ends up being meaningful, the atmospherics helped make it memorable.

At the start, the choreography was just so.

The square shape of the table had been negotiated. The tablecloths had been steamed free of wrinkles. The microphones came with little reminders that lawmakers should not forget to turn them off, as this might not be the best place for an unsuspecting live mike.

Yet there was also a sense that the summit tried to cram in so much that anything might happen. It seemed to set a fitting tone when one technician, worried of a power blackout at the Blair House guest quarters, told the media not to plug in one more single piece of equipment. "We are at the very edge," he said.

This was not a scene set for comfort.

Lawmakers sat at wood-backed chairs with thin padding for hours. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia spied the different style of chairs set aside for the media and ruefully told reporters: "Ah, you've got those big, comfortable cushions to sit on."

Then Obama arrived and worked the room, smiling and shaking the hands of all 38 lawmakers.

As the day wore on, patience did, too.

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Obama tried to keep his trademark cool but scoffed and grimaced at times as Republicans made their points.

The event often felt like it was plucked off Capitol Hill, with lawmakers yielding time and seeking time and having hushed chats with aides who slipped them notes. And other times, it seemed more like a meeting of county commissioners, a rambling experiment in democracy that often slipped off topic.

When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chided Obama for not giving equal time to both parties, looking down at a note to offer the president an up-to-date tally of many minutes each had received, Obama first didn't believe the math. Then when Obama realized that his own opening statement had been included in the tally, he told the opposition party that yes, of course, there was an imbalance.

"Because I'm the president," he said.

Indeed, this was a White House-run event, right down to the logo on the name cards.

The lawmakers who took part all had a longer commute than Obama.

Video: Democrats give health reform the hard sell He simply had to walk across the street to Blair House. It was close enough that he ducked back home for lunch. House members, meanwhile, had to hustle back to the Capitol to cast a vote.

"It's interesting," Obama told reporters midway through the summit. "I mean, I don't know if it's interesting watching it on TV."

Three video cameras were set up to catch the major angles for the networks. C-SPAN had its own camera, too.

Republican and Democratic offices couldn't help but fire off dueling news releases even as the summit happened, reminiscent of the spin on a presidential debate night.

Inside the room, there was a strained attempt at bipartisanship.

Mostly, politicians did what politicians do.

They busted their time limits. They didn't always follow instructions. They tried to one-up the other party.

Two of the most notable riffs came between Obama and his 2008 presidential rival, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"We're not campaigning anymore. The election's over," Obama scolded McCain after the Republican broadly condemned the health care debate, under Obama's leadership, as one that protected special interests. But in the afternoon, Obama startled McCain by conceding his point about a criticism of the Senate's health care bill. "Thank you very much," McCain said, as both men smiled and laughed.

And somewhere in all that, a serious, wonky discussion of health care policy happened.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Health care summit summons political drama

  1. Closed captioning of: Health care summit summons political drama

    >>> "nightly news" begins now.

    >>> good evening. if you were so inclined, you could have spent your whole day watching live television coverage of a health care summit from washington . it featured around one table and in one room the president of the united states and leaders of congress from both parties. the white house pushed for it because they feel their man, the president, is good at this sort of thing. and while it was a live tv show, it also may have a big impact on the future of health care for every american or things could keep going the way they have been. we begin our coverage tonight with our white house correspondent savannah guthrie . good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. leading up to this summit, senior aides here said they didn't expect it to change everything. the question tonight is, did it change anything? with just a short walk across the street to blair house --

    >> looking forward to listening.

    >> reporter: the all-day televised summit showed the long way the president has to go to bridge the divide over health care .

    >> i hope that this isn't political theater where we are just laying to the cameras and criticizing each other.

    >> reporter: the democrats' strategy appeared to be reasonable.

    >> we are actually quite close. there is not a lot of difference.

    >> we may be closer together than people really think.

    >> i think we agree with most of them.

    >> reporter: but republicans disgreed about agreeing. distancing themselves from the democrats' bill.

    >> there are some fundamental differences between us here that we cannot paper over.

    >> we don't think all the answers lie in washington regulating all of this.

    >> there is a reason why we all voted no.

    >> reporter: looking to resuscitate his key domestic initiative, the president invited 39 members of congress selected by the republican and democratic congressional leadership, to debate the fine points of health care policy. how to pay for it, who should be covered, how to rein in escalating health care costs.

    >> i would like the republicans to do a little soul searching and find out are there some things that you would be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance .

    >> reporter: not every disagreement today was on substance.

    >> at this point the republicans have 22 minutes , the democrats 52 minutes. let's try to have as much balance as we can.

    >> i'm just going back and forth here, mitch.

    >> reporter: tonight the key difference remains, whether to do a big comprehensive health care bill or proceed bit by bit.

    >> our country's too big, too complicated, too decentralized for washington , a few of us here to write a few rules about remaking 17% of the economy all at once.

    >> an incremental approach is like a swimmer who is 50 feet offshore drowning and you throw him a 10-foot rope.

    >> reporter: in a reprise of the 2008 campaign, senator john mccain accused the president of negotiating the bill behind closed doors .

    >> what we got was a process that you and i both said we would change in washington .

    >> we're not campaigning anymore. the election is over.

    >> i'm reminded of that every day.

    >> reporter: well, with no major breakthroughs, the president hinted at the close of the session he is looking to democrats now to go forward and the voters will have the final verdict on what they do, brian.

    >> all right, savannah guthrie on the white house lawn. this

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