Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Question Time

I've refrained from saying anything about Barack Obama's appearance at the House Republican Conference, because I hate to be a spoilsport about these sort of things -- liberals were enjoying it so much and all, not to mention the goo goos, who love this sort of thing.

As far as Obama's performance, the best thing you can read is by Kevin Drum, who noted that "The guy at the mike always has the advantage."  Yes, I think that George W. Bush would have done just fine in that format.  Granted, there are some skills that help: knowing policy details, knowing facts from fiction, and being able to compose word sequences that look suspiciously like sentences on the fly are all useful.  Of the last five presidents, I'd say that Obama is second best to Clinton in those abilities -- Reagan had problems with the first two of those skills, George H.W. Bush with the third one, and George W. Bush took the trifecta -- all three!  And despite all that, I'm sure Bush would have done just fine.

The larger question is whether such confrontations are a Good Thing, and one that we should borrow from the Brits.  Oddly enough, however, nothing I've seen has referred to a good 'ole American tradition that allows for what Ross Douthat wants -- for the president to be "publicly cross-examined."  That institution is the full dress presidential press conference, an institution that has been sadly neglected by Barack Obama.  Press conferences have several advantages over a direct confrontation between the president and Members of Congress.  First, the press is free to ask questions that Congress -- including the opposition party -- may not want to raise.  Second, whatever bias individual members of the press corps may have, at least they are not pre-programmed partisans, more interested in partisan points than in eliciting information.  Third, while it is certainly true that individual reporters are apt to be self-aggrandizing, they are much more likely to...how do I put this...um...to tell the truth, I guess, than are Members of Congress.  Accuracy is much valued among reporters; it is not exactly a major calling card for Members of Congress, especially those from the opposition party. 

The institution of Question Time is also more appropriate for Britain's system than for the American version of democracy for a couple of other reasons.  First, Congress holds plenty of reasonably high visibility hearings, in which members of both parties have plenty of chance to question, and attack if they choose, executive branch officials.  In Britain, a back bencher from the majority party might challenge the government by asking a question; in the United States, unhappy Members of Congress can convene a hearing.  Moreover, in Britain the minority party really has no way of influencing events, beyond raising issues, asking questions, and campaigning for the next election   In Congress, the minority has real opportunities, if Members so choose, to help make policy -- being the party of "No" is to a large extent a choice, not a constitutional arrangement. 

When John McCain was peddling the proposal during the campaign, George Will said, "President McCain would not lack ways and venues for conversing with legislators without reducing Congress to a prop in a skit of president-centrism."  That's exactly correct -- that's what Obama did to the House Republicans last week.  The thing is that in Britain, ordinary Members of Parliament really are inferior to the Prime Minister and the members of the Government.  Not in the United States: the Constitution envisions equal branches.  There is no more reason to expect Members of Congress to quiz the president than there is for the president to question them.  They are Constitutional equals.

So: more press conferences.  If people like, add regular YouTube press conferences to supplement, but not replace, regular press conferences.  More attention paid by the press to meaningful Congressional hearings (today's DADT hearing?  Yes.  Is Mark McGwire a threat to the republic?  Not so much).  And leave Question Time to the folks who know how to do it; if we're to get all bent out of shape by Justice Alito's mild faux pas, I really don't think we want to even think about what might happen with a real Question Time.


  1. Excellent points. If I can offer a couple of comments ...

    One thing I'm learning from your blog is how some things we believe are important politically are really fairly minor in that regard. So I'd be wary of overestimating the importance of the retreat conference, beyond the cosmetic. But ... there is a group I believe Obama needs to keep within his circle. Not radical leftists, who won't support him any more than Republicans will, but the liberal wing of his own party. Even if most of the nation ignored Obama's performance, my guess is some of the "people who matter" did pay attention. And, as much as I enjoy watching Alan Grayson stick it to his enemies, that really is more theater than substance. Obama didn't just toy with the Republicans, he did it in a measured yet firm way, all the while maintaining his equanimity. I think this helped him a bit amongst the liberals who, like me, asked "where has this guy been?"

    Also, you are obviously right that the press is best at asking the right questions, certainly more so than politicians. I wish I felt more confident in our press ... I am not anti-press, I am perhaps too idealistic about their importance. But it's not like every journalist in the crowd is Helen Thomas. The press that does a mediocre job of examining the roots of our problems in general isn't going to suddenly become conscientious about their job. They are more likely to ask self-aggrandizing questions without saying anything that might endanger their access to the powerful. So I'm all for more press conferences, but I'm even more in favor of a more useful press.

  2. Do you really think W. would have done "just fine" in this format? I'm sure he would be very disciplined in repeating his talking points, and he'd surely take advantage of the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

    But, it seems to me, much of the praise for Obama's performance is based on the fact that he was able to able to rebut the substantive issues raised by the Republicans in a respectful, logical, and persuasive manner. He didn't sound like he was campaigning--he sounded like he was having a conversation (albeit a highly intellectual conversation), and that's partially why his performance has been so well received. GWB couldn't have pulled that off in a million years.

    I guess I just disagree with you and Kevin that "The guy at the mike always has the advantage." You can just as easily say that the questioners always have the advantage--after all, they are the ones with the first opportunity to set the agenda and frame the issues. They even had the opportunity to ask follow-ups.

    I have nothing against spoilsports, but you're just not giving Obama enough credit here.

  3. Oh, and to echo M. Regret above, your prescription ("More press conferences") seems to miss the point.

    Of course, House Republicans aren't the most honest or sincere questioners. But that's also one reason why this Q-and-A session was so enlightening--because Obama had the opportunity to confront the lies and distortions head on.

    Besides, if you think that more frequent press conferences would lead to more engaging policy debates than what we saw in Baltimore... you must be dreaming.

    And I don't understand this idea that Obama answering questions from members of Congress somehow places him above the legislative branch. Presumably you approve of senior executive branch members (department heads, military officials) testifying at Congressional hearings. What is different about the President answering Congress's questions?

  4. What was special about this situation was not so Obama so much as the Republicans. How often do we get to see them ask a question and have an intelligent person, well-versed in the policies answer them at length? Most of what we see of the typical congressperson is a series of 30 second sound bites where each side spews their talking points, the host changes the subject after one point each, and then we go to commercial. The press may ask a tough initial question but they're not going dispute the answer; best-case, we get a slightly pointed follow-up. So yes, more press conferences, but also more live discussions between people making ridiculous claims and people that are actually informed enough and have the motive to call them on it.

    For starters, I'd like to see Obama meet the liberal wing of the Democratic party under these same conditions. Not so much for the theater of it, but because I really want to hear how he would respond to their arguments.

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