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President Obama talks with Ryan Rhodes of the Iowa Tea Party Revolution and an unidentified woman in Decorah, Aug. 15, 2011. (AP)

Obama's Debate With Iowa Tea Partiers: What Democracy Looks Like

Aug 17, 2011

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President Obama's encounter with Tea Party activists this week in Decorah, Iowa clearly didn't leave either side persuaded by the other.

But it certainly doesn't hurt the president to allow such moments, like that with Iowa Tea Party Revolution chair Ryan Rhodes and another questioner, to occur.

It could even be helpful to the president if such moments reinforce for voters that Obama is at least willing to engage his political adversaries either in Washington or out in the country even when there's no meeting of the minds.

Rhodes and the woman with him should also get credit. Finding yourself face to face with a president can be intimidating. Even Fortune 500 CEOs have been known to develop a sudden bout of shyness in a president's presence. But the Tea Party activists took him on, mostly respectfully.

As for a brief encounter, there was a lot of heat if not much light.

Rhodes was upset by allegations that Vice President Biden likened Tea Party lawmakers and activists to terrorists during the debt ceiling debate.

Obama denied the charge which Biden has denied, too. Then Obama appeared to be about to suggest that his critics could dish it out but couldn't take it, when a woman who appeared, like Rhodes, to be an Obama opponent interjected, saying that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also referred to "right-wing extremists" as a threat. Then the woman told the president:

"You do realize that 90 percent of domestic terrorist attacks are done by left-wing environmental radicals?"

Obama didn't touch that and probably a good thing. He wasn't going to win that argument since the woman's "facts" appear to have been pulled from thin air.

Experts on domestic terrorism say that while ecoterrorists pose some threat, it's attacks by extremists with far right-wing views that most worry scholars and law enforcement.

Anyway, score one for Obama. It's good to see a president who's willing meet his grass-roots critics every once in a while. Of course, the question is would he as willing if he had a 65 percent public approval rating and weren't facing a tough re-election?

And score one for the Tea Party activists who weren't so cowered by the aura that surrounds any president as to decide in the end to just settle for a handshake.

In the end, it was what democracy looks like.

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