In the room: Smiles, smirks and serious looks

Image: Obama Hosts Bi-Partisan Health Care Meeting
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.Pool / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

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.