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When Obama and the House GOP Spoke

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 29 2010


"Now, part of the reason I accepted your invitation to come here was because I wanted to speak with all of you, and not just to all of you. So I'm looking forward to taking your questions and having a real conversation in a few moments." That's how Barack Obama opened up an absolutely remarkable question-and-answer session at the House GOP caucus retreat, held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, that just wrapped a short time ago.

For about an hour and a half this afternoon, Obama and congressional Republicans engaged in Q&A that managed to be substantive, spirited, engaging, and even hugely entertaining. In other words, the way politics deserves to be in the United States, but much more akin to the "question time" of the British parliament than the scripted posturing that often passes for political engagement in this country.

(You can follow along with the Twitter commentary about the possibility of doing more "#questiontime" here. You can also watch the full thing online now, or wait for the C-SPAN rebroadcast tonight at 8 EST.)

What resulted was a far more engaging hour and a half of television than the pre-crafted performance that was Wednesday night's State of the Union. There was even a certain group-therapy flavor to it. President Obama seemed to get a visceral pleasure out of parrying on the nitty-gritty of health care reform down in Baltimore today. ("You know, Mike," he said to House Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence, "I've read your legislation...But here -- here's the thing...) There are scattered reports that Republicans were appreciative of the chance to engage, even if there was also grumbling that maybe it wasn't such a brilliant idea, in retrospect, to agree to the White House's reported request to broadcast the session; it aired live on cable channels and C-SPAN online. But as important as it might have been for this exchange to happen, the more important part is that we got to watch it take place. Neither Obama nor Republicans have been particularly well served by the chattering-past-one-another tone of the last year either, and they more or less know it. While Obama got the limelight and the podium today, Republicans were able to get in some pointed and provocative questions.

It had its appeal. Politically interested folks on Twitter were set alight by the passion of the session, and a call to make this a more regular event almost immediately sprung up. Things move fast these days. Question time quickly became "#questiontime." At 1:41 EST, Mother Jones writer David Corn tweeted a request for C-SPAN to push for government to regularly engage in "#questiontime," and by 1:45 C-SPAN had already tweeted, "We're on it!"

Afternoons like today's point to something that often gets missed in discussions about pushing for greater transparency in American politics. There's real possibility that the more people actually get to see and participate in the inner workings of the political process, the less reflexively suspicious of politics they actually are. The more willing they are to grant that not everyone who holds different political views is either shamefully ignorant or downright malicious. Cynicism grows best in the dark.

That was part of the appeal of Obama's promise to broadcast health care negotiations on C-SPAN, even if the actual logistics of that were always pretty crazy. Politics is about humans, driven by humans. You saw that, for example, when Rep. Pete Roskam of Illinois recalled the State Senator Obama he once knew. Obama seemed to take a pause to remember that guy too. A political moment like today's is a reminder that at its core, and at its best, politics comes down to real people battling over powerful ideas. And that's the "sport" part of politics well worth the watching.