Heard on the Hill

Obama Goes Off Script at St. Patrick's Day Lunch

President to Lawmakers: 'Reject' Rhetoric That Feeds Violence

From left, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny walk down the House steps following the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon in the Capitol, on Tuesday. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama went off script Tuesday, using his platform at the typically lighthearted St. Patrick’s Day luncheon at the Capitol to “reject” the recent violence at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies.  

Sure, there were the typically lighter moments -- like when Obama and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., traded some friendly barbs about their beloved NFL Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. And Obama said he hoped the bipartisan goodwill on display would carry over "to my Supreme Court nominee." But Obama spoke at length about a need to put an end to any political rhetoric and tactics that might breed violence at political rallies.  

"I know that I’m not the only one in this room who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail lately," Obama said. "We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities -- at Americans who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do."  

The president made sure to “reject” the testy scenes at some Trump rallies, though he never used the billionaire real estate mogul’s name.  

Obama warned "this is about the American brand," noting that citizens practicing “openness” to those who are in some way different has long been a defining U.S. value.  

"Why would we want to tarnish that?” he asked rhetorically.  

Obama’s criticism was not limited to the Trump supporters who have responded to protesters with violence. He also indirectly called for anti-Trump protesters to respect the First Amendment rights of the GOP front-runner and his supporters.  

"We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech, however offensive it may be," he said. "We live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold."  

"In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders," Obama said. "Speaker Ryan, I appreciated the words on this topic that you shared with us this morning. But too often we’ve accepted this as somehow the new normal.  

Obama was referring to Ryan, during comments earlier Tuesday, condemning Democrats who are disrupting Republican campaign rallies while also stating that GOP candidates must discourage violent acts from their supporters.  

"It’s worth asking ourselves what each of us may have done to contribute to this kind of vicious atmosphere in our politics," the president said. "I suspect that all of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly, I can."  

Both sides, he warned, are damaging the country's politics and its perception abroad.  

In one powerful moment, Obama pleaded with the Republicans and Democrats in the ornate setting inside the Capitol. He said the matter largely is about American children, adding "we should not have to explain to them this darker side" of U.S. politics.  

He noted the American political system will soon be in the hands of those children. "We want them to elevate," Obama said.  

The room went from hushed to nearly silent as Obama turned to Ryan and noted they disagree on most policy issues.  

He called his political rival “a great father,” and added: “But I don't have a bad thing to say about you as a man."  

Ryan nodded back.  

"I know you want what's best for America," the president told the speaker.  

Then the event got back on its annual schedule, with Obama toasting the two countries.  

The lawmakers, officials and others around the room’s nearly dozen tables stood and applauded. It was unclear, however, whether the transatlantic standing ovation was for the toast, inching closer toward lunch being served, or for Obama's pointed remarks.  

Still, there were some lighter moments:

  • After bagpipes could be heard by reporters before they were allowed into the luncheon, Obama dropped a version of his annual line, jokingly declaring, "I am Irish." He added that while Tuesday was not quite St. Patrick's Day, "most folks who celebrate it aren’t Irish either -- I can talk about them because I am Irish, as I have been prone to mention on this occasion."
  • Obama referred to an Irish folks song about his last name and a possible Irish connection. The joke that followed drew bipartisan laughter, though some Republican lawmakers appeared to only reach a mild chuckle. "Back in 2008, the Corrigan Brothers even penned a song called, 'There is No One as Irish as Barack Obama.' This is true. As the lyrics go:  'From Kerry to Cork, let’s hear it for Barack from old Moneygall.' And somehow that line did not result in cries for my birth certificate on the campaign trail...
  • The president also teased those assembled for yearly ritual. "Now, to paraphrase something President [Ronald] Reagan once said at this lunch: On St. Patrick’s Day you should spend time with saints and scholars. So the Taoiseach and I have two more stops to make after this." If only bagpipes could play a comedic rimshot.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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