Saturday, January 30, 2010

Questions with the Prime Minister: American Style

America has imported much from British television - American Idol, The Office, Threes Company - and now may be the time to import a new British television staple. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister spends half an hour every Wednesday answering questions from Members of Parliament. These televised sessions force the chief executive and the rest of the legislature (as they are merged in a parliamentary system) to face one another on aregular basis. The exchanges may be respectful, though they are often raucous and contentious. These televised exchanges allow the public to see and judges their elected leaders. In the U.S. the separation of powers means that the President need not subject himself to the public questioning of the legislature and his continuation in office is dependent on the voters and not on majority support in the legislature. Instead, Americans are typically treated to the President dismissing the opposition party as obstructionist and devoid of any useful ideas and the opposition accuses the President of ignoring their suggestions. This past Friday, however, Americans were treated to a U.S. version of Questions with the Prime Minister when President Obama accepted an invitation to attend a retreat of the House Republican caucus in Baltimore. Those who watched the coverage saw a President in top form. Obama shed the confrontational tone of his State of the Union Address and engaged in a thoughtful back and forth with his GOP questioners. Likewise, Republicans dropped the harsh tones of their frequent criticisms and offered a plethora of policy proposals. They argued that if the President would only bypass the House Democratic leadership then bipartisanship could be attained. The meeting represented a win for both sides and for the American people.

Such meetings should occur monthly and they should be televised. The event in Baltimore allowed the President to demonstrate a commitment to his campaign pledge to change the tone in Washington and accept new ideas. For Republicans, it allowed them to disprove the accusations that they simply seek to obstruct and have no constructive policy options on issues such as health care and the budget deficit. In other words, the event made both sides look better, made both sides seem more responsive and responsible. For those reasons I fear that there will not be further events like this – it’s very difficult to turn your opponent or opponents into a simple caricature when you spend an hour or so every month in a face to face televised meeting openly discussing your differences.