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January 30th, 2010 10:19 am
Less Speeches, More Debates

After a week’s worth of forgettable speeches, President Obama finally made an appearance worth watching. Yesterday’s Q&A with House Republicans was a refreshing reminder that the much maligned political class in Washington, D.C., does, in fact, know something about policy. The ninety-minute exchange also took the focus off elections that are still ten months away. That in itself is enough to commend a repeat meeting because there is still way too much time left in the current congressional session to waste strategizing about outcomes that – at this point – cannot be projected. It is a much better use of everyone’s time to remember that the 111th Congress is barely halfway finished debating the people’s business.

And what a debate it was! I can’t remember the last time I agreed with anything David Corn wrote, but I agree with part his column yesterday about the future implications of the historic Q&A between President Obama and House GOP members. Corn thinks a regular meet-and-debate session would fundamentally change the type and skill set of a person running for president. If that means someone who has a deep command of issues, is quick on his feet, and can use a bit of humor – I’m all for it. Besides, it is obvious Republicans want to engage the president on his policies. (In two out of three speeches to joint sessions of Congress, the president has elicited responses from Rep. Joe Wilson and Justice Samuel Alito.) Why not at least give members of Congress – and the president himself – a crack at the opposition face-to-face. While I don’t agree with Corn that the president “cleaned the clock” of the House GOP, I do think he set a standard for depth and poise that should be emulated.

Now, for a criticism. The president needs to refer to his interlocutors with the same courtesy for their positions as they do for his. No one will ever call him anything other than “Mr. President”, but his repeated use of representatives’ first name became tiresome. It was also rude. If he’s striving for friendly informality, he should find another way than telling “John” (Boehner, Republican Leader), “Eric” (Cantor, Republican Whip), and “Mike” (Pence, Conference Chairman) why he doesn’t like their proposals. As usual, it comes across as the president speaking down to people. At best, it is a silly verbal tick that needs to be corrected.

A final suggestion. Republicans need to embrace this format because it gives them an unparalleled opportunity to debate the president’s policies directly and for the benefit of the American people. This kind of exchange reflects a confident republic at work, and it would go a long way towards softening the partisan tone while at the same time strengthening the quality of policy differences. Instead of criticizing the president for staging a photo-op, Republicans need to talk up his newfound willingness to be open and transparent. Invite him back to speak soon, and often. Keep up the pressure to have a weekly, televised Q&A between the parties and the branches. If nothing else, it will finally reward politicians who study policy and have a knack for making memorable, persuasive arguments.

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