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Obama @ GOP Retreat: Question Period… American Style?

January 30, 2010
Obama continues to open himself up for criticism from the other end of the political spectrum. Public image courtesy Flickr user 'Beverly & Pack.'

Obama continues to open himself up for criticism from the other end of the political spectrum. Public image courtesy Flickr user 'Beverly & Pack.'

For political wonks, the last few days have offered some great tv.  To begin with, Tony Blair appeared before the Iraq War inquiry in Britain, offering a defiant justification for his decision to go to war, saying he had no regrets and would do it again. Love him or hate him, Blair remains an eloquent and riveting speaker.

But even more fascinating– and relevant to Canadian politics– was President Obama’s decision to attend the GOP retreat in Baltimore and take questions directly from House Republicans, who are among his administration’s fiercest critics.  The format, where the President stood at a lecturn on stage and took questions from a Republican audience, garnered rave reviews from reporters, including several comparisons to the Canadian and British parliamentary tradition of Question Period:

Whether it was chutzpah, political savvy, or both, it certainly was refreshing. Reporters were thrilled with the British Parliament-style exchange between president and lawmakers.

While on some very, very, abstract level I understand the comparison,  but in practice the two political events could not be more different.

Indeed, Canadians familiar with Question Period will immediately notice a few important differences between that daily event (uhm, when Parliament is sitting and not prorogued…) and the Q&A between Obama and the GOP caucus (The full video of the exchange can be seen here).  First, everyone acted like adults.  In stark contrast to Question Period in the Canadian Parliament, even after heated disagreements about tough policy issues, Obama and his Republican critics maintained a definitive sense of decorum and civility.  Second,  the exchanges were substantive and both the questions and answers were serious and direct.  That is, unlike Question Period, when a House Republican asked the President a specific question on health care,  Obama did not have a some Democratic operative stand in his stead and offer an answer that bore little resemblance to the question posed (ala Peter van Loan).

If only Question Period bore even a remote resemblance to the serious adult conversation between the President and House Republicans.  If only.  Canada needs, and aspires, to lead by example, but your foreign policy is not going to be taken serious abroad, if your politics at home cannot be taken seriously either.  While this is not often said– given the deeply partisan and petty nature of American politics–  perhaps, at least in this case, we can learn a thing or two about parliamentary practice from that republic to the south.

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