Prime Minister Obama
Like a British Prime Minister, Obama took questions directly from the opposition, which is unheard of in American politics. Obama’s Q&A session was all the more remarkable because it was voluntary, which question time certainly isn’t for the British Prime Minister.
Descriptions of the British Prime Minister’s ritual have been positive, or even glowing. For years, Democrats fantasized about the opportunity to cross-examine President Bush. Many Republicans secretly wished they had a president who could defend himself from all comers. Now, the Democrats have that instead. Even John McCain likes the idea, which he first raised during his campaign back in 2008.
Yet as a former resident of the UK, I can report that Britains hardly share the veneration of this ritual that has become so infectious on this side of the Atlantic. Why, you say? Because it has become formulaic and partisan. Once both sides expect to put on show, that’s exactly what they do. It is not a fierce but civil exchange of ideas.
A few years back, I made a habit of listening to the weekly podcast of Tony Blair taking questions. At first, it was extremely impressive. Blair commanded an encyclopedic knowledge of the facts. He was also quick on his feet and often very, very funny. So were many of his opponents. But after a while, I began to feel like I wasn’t learning very much about British politics. The questions that politicians ask each other are often not the questions we want to ask them. Don’t say you heard this from me, but journalists questions are often a lot more relevant.
Now, back to Obama and the House GOP. There was a remarkably collegial tone to their exchange that isn’t there in Parliament. It seemed like there was a real desire to establish a certain rapport, even if the next morning it would be back to politics as usual. I think this is because the kind of engagement we saw last Friday was unique. If it becomes institutionalized, it begins to take on the character of its British equivalent.
Even so, I think a President’s Question Time would be an extremely valuable addition to our public debate. Just don’t think it would suddenly usher in a new era of elevated civil discourse. It will become part of the landscape and people will soon be dismissing it as more of the same. Which is perhaps a reminder not to take for granted the better venues for public debate we already have, while still demanding more.