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Question time with President Obama at the Republican Issues Retreat

I skipped the State of the Union. I’ve been fed up with Obama speeches for a bit—strange, considering he’s the best political speaker of my lifetime, certainly. But I just couldn’t take another scolding like the one he delivered in his health care speech.

I read the speech the next day. It was better—but still a stump speech. Talk of a spending freeze that doesn’t include defense spending leaves me more angry than impressed. But I had to turn on the TV (well, the YouTube) two days later and watch a rather different kind of Obama event, one that’s since been dubbed “Question Time” after the British tradition of letting the opposition party at the Prime Minister for some unbridled fun—er, questioning.

After Joe Wilson’s shout during that health care speech, I called for less “respect” and more engagement, more criticism. Well, there were no shouts of “you lie!” at the Republican Issues Retreat, where Obama was allowed to speak his (predictable) piece and then took questions from the (white) Representatives gathered.

Indeed, the only accusations of lying came from Obama, delivered with a grin at some times, at others with a stern look and a list of the actual facts.

It was great political theater, and as many who watched the event live tweeted, it made many former supporters like the president again. He certainly ran rings around many of the reps who got up to make stump speeches of their own, grandstanding in front of a mic before the President inevitably picked apart their statements.

There was a birth certificate joke, but the wilder accusations didn’t come. There were no questions about death panels, and Michelle Bachmann was nowhere to be seen. It’s harder to lie boldly to someone’s face, I suppose.

As for Obama, he was funny, self-possessed, and capable of substantive answers to any number of gotchas. He should be funny more often. Funny breaks through to people—it keeps unrestrained anger and fear from growing. You get angry at someone, but you can laugh with them.

He also managed to slide in subtle put-downs that were red meat for progressives watching, repeating the need to find “credible” economists to support Republican proposals (though the credibility of his own economic team is hardly impeccable) and “health care experts.” His tone shifted depending on who he spoke to—Marsha Blackburn’s voice oozed condescension the way John McCain’s did during debates, but Obama coolly out-condescended her, reducing his sentences to one-syllable words.

So, yes, the event rallied the troops for Obama, and Republican reaction afterward indicated that they knew he’d won the debate.

But more importantly, this was a victory for transparency and for a possible real change in the way things are done in Washington.

Perhaps we were only riveted by the fact that it was a new event. Certainly the fact that veteran Washington reporters like Mother Jones’ David Corn called the event “gripping” says something for the novelty of the moment.

Corn wrote:

Obama campaigned to bring change to Washington. Regular public encounters between the president and the opposition party would be real change. (It might even have an impact on what sort of politician could consider becoming president.) NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd tweeted that Obama “will win tons of pundit plaudits but will policy come out of it?” Yet good debate can shape good policy. Here was an unfiltered exchange between the opposing camps of Washington. Citizens could watch and decide.

This morning, there’s a petition calling for more events of this nature. Tweeters quickly hashtagged it #questiontime and demanded more as well, and different events: many of us would like to see Obama take questions from, say, the House Progressive Caucus and have to defend his left flank, or even have a similar roasting of the Blue Dogs.

Imagine the president not only taking very basic, pointed questions from average citizens at town hall meetings on a regular basis, but fielding the questions of the opposition party for prime-time TV cameras. It would change the debate. Hyperbole and lies would have less traction if they had to, at some point, be said to someone else’s face and not a flock of fawning reporters. It’s like high school—it’s much easier to start a rumor and deny you said it later than to be forced to say it out loud.

And yet, what does it say about our news media that we have to call on the president to take questions from the opposition in order to hear him answer their points? None of the GOP talking points broached were exactly new—I was slightly surprised to hear a Republican offering a Democratic president a line-item veto, but most of the talking points were predictable deficit, spending, deficit, spending, health care, entitlements, why won’t you listen to us? These are age-old party ideas, cornerstones of their platform, even, that any White House reporter worth her press badge could ask at any press conference.

They don’t.

Transparency from the administration is a good thing. Public debate is a good thing. Yet many of the Washington reporters cheering this event could put the president on the hot seat any time they wanted just by asking serious, difficult questions.

I would take more events like this one over more prime-time speeches, certainly, and I suspect after the performance here, Obama’s people are rethinking their strategy. They certainly were reminded that the best weapon in their arsenal is the fact that this president is not a nitwit or an empty suit, and that part of his appeal has always been his ability to talk about issues in a way that people can understand, at least as much as his stirring hope-and-change rhetoric.

But I’d also love it if the White House press corps took some lessons from the Republican representatives—yes, I said it—and actually pressed the president when they have access to him on policy issues.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

7 thoughts on “Question time with President Obama at the Republican Issues Retreat

  1. Marsha Blackburn Voted FOR:
    Omnibus Appropriations, Special Education, Global AIDS Initiative, Job Training, Unemployment Benefits, Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations, Agriculture Appropriations, U.S.-Singapore Trade, U.S.-Chile Trade, Supplemental Spending for Iraq & Afghanistan, Prescription Drug Benefit, Child Nutrition Programs, Surface Transportation, Job Training and Worker Services, Agriculture Appropriations, Foreign Aid, Vocational/Technical Training, Supplemental Appropriations, UN “Reforms.” Patriot Act Reauthorization, CAFTA, Katrina Hurricane-relief Appropriations, Head Start Funding, Line-item Rescission, Oman Trade Agreement, Military Tribunals, Electronic Surveillance, Head Start Funding, COPS Funding, Funding the REAL ID Act (National ID), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, Thought Crimes “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, Peru Free Trade Agreement, Economic Stimulus, Farm Bill (Veto Override), Warrantless Searches, Employee Verification Program, Body Imaging Screening.

    Marsha Blackburn Voted AGAINST:
    Ban on UN Contributions, eliminate Millennium Challenge Account, WTO Withdrawal, UN Dues Decrease, Defunding the NAIS, Iran Military Operations defunding Iraq Troop Withdrawal, congress authorization of Iran Military Operations.

    Marsha Blackburn is my Congressman.
    See her unconstitutional votes at :

  2. Is Obama really the best political speaker of your lifetime or are we just “going with the flow”?

    I’ve never been impressed with any of his political speaking, and in interviews I’ve seen with his speech-writing team, they essentially admit their protocol was “dumbing things down with pretty words” — a technique that showed great results on voters under 25 and blacks (hey, draw your own conclusion).

    Even old meat & potatoes Pat Buchanan would thoroughly humiliate Obama in an improvised debate.

  3. “And yet, what does it say about our news media that we have to call on the president to take questions from the opposition in order to hear him answer their points?”

    I’m quit perplexed by this question. What alternative would you suggest? That the US president be shielded from opposing views “to be easy on him and be nice”?

    Your analogies about vicious high-school rumors help put your views into perspective; how many months ago did you graduate?

  4. An admission of guilt here?

    “It was great political theater, and as many who watched the event live tweeted, it made many former supporters like the president again.”

    They began supporting one of the most titanic failures on US political history again because he “grinned”? Hahaha.

    This is politics, not American Idol little girl; nobody cares if the failure is able to grin under criticism from “those whites”. Nobody cares if you “think he should be funny more often”; Do you even comprehend what the president’s job is? You are the cliche barely-legal demographic mesmerized by Obama’s “coolness” that everyone constantly mocks.

    I’ve posted this article on a couple of forums and we’re having a great laugh at your expense. find a new hobby.

  5. SJ: Great column.

    Although I didn’t watch Obama’s exchange with the GOP, I did read Ari Melber’s Nation column that was reprinted on the NPR website (regarding the above exchange).

    Melber quoted David Axelrod’s opinion that further question-and-answer sessions would have a diminishing return because the spontaneity would be lost — and Axelrod is right.

    At this point, the GOP is still counting on the unemployment rate to lever Dems out of office in November 2010, so the GOP probably feels it has nothing to lose by undermining the seriousness of future question-and-answer sessions, and turning sessions into a circus act in order to rally the GOP ‘base.’ It’s been the GOP’s consistent strategy since Obama took office.

    But I hope future sessions, if they do take place, disprove Axelrod’s view.

    To the first commenter (3 comments!): Get a grip. You don’t even know whom you’re addressing when you talk to SJ. What is ultimately undermining the Obama administration is the unemployment rate, not anyone’s style of rhetoric.

  6. I love pmqs over here (prime minister’s question time) it is must see tv more often than not. Is Obama the best political speaker? Maybe in America but our combative political system seems to churn out greats from all parties on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong Obama has been inspirational but does he sound even better because Dubya was so bad?

    Love him or hate him but I remember the Respect MP George Galloway destroying the US Senate in 2005 with his oration. That really was a unique experience to see the two systems clash like that. I think both can learn from one another. We are having televised debates between the 3 major parties US style for the first time this coming election something you have been doing as standard for years.

    You are only as good as your opponents and Obama can run rings around his US opposition at the moment. How will he fare when he meets someone of equal calibre? He didn’t come off to well here when pressed by uk journalists a while ago so it will be interesting if the Republicans can muster a champion. Can’t see it happening anytime soon though.

  7. Great piece Sarah. As for Al, your feedback would laughable if it weren’t so sad. I can just imagine you and your buddies who are making fun of this piece. You probably all huddle up to cheer and do the chicken dance every time Sarah Palin speaks. You probably think Sarah Palin is the greatest orator of our time! And you miss the great political wisdom of George Bush. What a sad lot!

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