Obama's beer summit vs. Obama's health-care summit

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Two of the biggest media-frenzy moments of the Obama presidency have also been two of the most contrived: the "beer summit" of July 30, when Obama met with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley in the White House Rose Garden, and the health-care summit on Thursday, in which the president sparred with GOP lawmakers at Blair House.

The gatherings, both called and hosted by Obama, were supposed to tackle some of the weightiest issues in America -- race and health care. But in the end, both may be recalled more as photo-ops, symbols of divides more than chances to bridge them.

Before Thursday, much was made of how, finally, television cameras would enable the American public to witness health-care negotiations in real time. But the cameras ensured that many of the participants preened and rehashed long-held arguments. Better if C-SPAN had joined the beer summit instead -- however raw or awkward or genial that conversation, it had a chance of being real. At the health-care summit, by contrast, reality was often imported via moving stories of things that had happened to other people.

Summits or not, the Obama presidency will certainly not fix race relations; it may not reform health care, either. But the president's remarks at the end of each meeting were revealing.

After the beer summit: "I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode."

At the conclusion of the health-care summit: "We have honest disagreements about the vision for the country, and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?"

Is it a sign of the chances of bipartisan health-care reform that Obama seems more hopeful on race relations in America? Maybe. On race, at least, the answers must be grounded in real mutual understanding. That takes longer, but it lasts longer, too. There is no quick-fix reconciliation maneuver available.

-- Carlos Lozada

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