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Last Friday, while most of us were either leaving work or thinking about when we were going to leave work because of the weather, something historic was happening. The president of the United States stood in front of GOP house members and took questions for almost 90 minutes – unfiltered, unscripted. It was the closest thing we've seen to the British Parliament's question time, although without the shouting, laughing, booing and hissing. Around here, the ice and sleet held the top spot in news broadcasts, but it is undoubtedly Obama's question and answer session that will be talked about for years to come.
In terms of political theatre, it was fascinating. The president coolly and calmly fielded questions on health care, the stimulus package, tax cuts, budget proposals and everything else you can think of. Without the filters of communications teams, news networks and every other spin doctor in the news business, what you saw unfold, live on television, was an honest debate that transcended the back-and-forth, bitter partisanship of the past year.
For the president, it was an outright success. Obama handled every question as if he knew exactly what was coming, taking the time to make small talk with legislators and even crack a joke or two. For the Republicans, it can only be seen as a huge political gaffe. The decision to allow cameras to roll on the event was made by the GOP and the subsequent beating they received at the hands of the president was broadcast live by every cable news network – well, for the most part.
How bad was it? Fox News actually cut away from the event to begin their commentary after the first hour – the only cable network to do so. CNN, MSNBC and others aired the session in its entirety. Obama had agreed to one hour, but when time was up he said, “Hey, I'm having fun,” and took a sip of water, readying himself for more questions. He wanted to keep going for the exact same reason the execs at Fox shut off the cameras – they could all smell the political victory for the president.
Commentary on the event, through blogs, Twitter and other news sites, spread so quickly and was so laudatory that by Friday afternoon, the question time session had become almost legendary. Saturday Night Live Weekend Update host Seth Meyers joked about how bad of an idea it was for Republicans to have invited Obama to such an event.
“Come on Republicans, are you on such a Scott Brown high that you really thought you could take down President Obama by debating him? You do realize debating is why he's president, right? Seriously, all you guys do is complain about how Obama is all talk and then invite him to a forum that is literally all talk. That's like saying, ‘Let's see how tough Aquaman is when we get him in the water.' ”
Reporters covering the session have asked the White House and GOP leaders to continue to hold similar events. CSPAN is also interested in carrying it (you can see this one at their website). At a press conference on Monday, a spokesman for the president said an offer had been extended by Senate Republicans and that the White House was willing to accept.
The only real question that remains is why it took Obama and his aides so long to do this. Had this event happened six months ago, it's likely the Democrats could have combatted some of the outright lies and misinformation that was coming from the Tea Party camp on health care. Obama even told Republicans that by characterizing health care reform as some kind of “Bolshevik plot,” they were hampering their own ability to negotiate with him. Passage of any kind of reform would upset their base since they used such extreme rhetoric to defeat it.
The more important question, though, is what happens next? If the White House could successfully institute a regular question time session with GOP leaders, it could perhaps cut down on some of the partisan bitterness so pervasive in Washington these days. It might also change the kind of candidates we select. And who knows, when both sides talk to each other, instead of their party's most radical elements, maybe someone will start to listen.