America got a taste of the UK’s Prime Minister’s Question Time today, as President Obama gave a speech – and answered questions – at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore. The question and answer session was initially to be closed to the public, but the President and the GOP opened it up to TV cameras afterward, and the President pretty easily deflected the tired talking points from House Republicans that have characterized their year in office. We heard the same lines about a cost-free jobs bill and the Republican health care plan, and Obama pretty clearly said that no serious economist believes that those ideas stand up to any scrutiny. And on the question of the national debt, Obama clearly stated that the previous Administration, automatic stabilizers and a successful (if too small) Recovery Act account for all of the run-up in costs, and that the Republican Medicare voucher plan, which was their deficit reduction idea, would cut into Medicare benefits far more than anything in the current health care bill. When asked by Mike Pence (R-IN) if he would call for an across-the-board tax cut, he said, “If that includes tax cuts for billionaires, I don’t agree. If that includes tax cuts for banks, I don’t agree.” Obama returned again and again to the disconnect between tactics and governing, and basically said that the GOP’s style of governing is nothing but tactical.
Now, there were downsides to this as well, based on the nature of the format. The President did appear in front of Democrats at their retreat and was probably pressed on a host of issues in the same manner. But we didn’t get to see that. A real Question Time would have the President face questions from both sides. Because Obama was essentially defending the proposition that he was too liberal, saying things like “this is a centrist (health care) bill” (which happens to be correct) and “I am not an ideologue.” Yes, a fully open question time would allow the President to place himself at the center of the debate, triangulating against either side. But he would be forced to defend his ideas in public, and supporters and detractors would be able to make up their own minds.
But this worked very well as a political tool, better than the State of the Union, in fact. We got to see actual interactive give and take between the parties. People disagree, and they should be offering that disagreement in public. This should become a regular feature of our politics, but after the Republican effort today, I think they may decline the next offer.