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.
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.
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.