It started by complete accident. Early in 2010, as the debate over health care raged on, President Obama met with the Republican congressional conference at a retreat in Baltimore. TV cameras were rolling in the back of the room, and Obama did something no American president in memory had. He took unscripted questions from his opposition on live TV. Republicans accused Obama of over-the-top spending and not returning their phone calls. Obama confronted the conference about being obstructionist.
It was, both sides later admitted, a fluke. The White House insisted cameras be present, but no one expected such a frank debate—including Obama himself, who when told to wrap up quipped, "You know, I'm having fun!" But the idea instantly caught on among pundits, who compared the session to Question Time, the mostly European tradition of prime ministers facing the criticism, much of it colorful, from their opposition in parliament. Blogs took up the idea of holding the event every month or so. And a group of six bipartisan journalists and interest group leaders started an online petition to compel lawmakers to do it again. "This is what democracy is, and too much of it in the past has been done behind closed doors," presidential historian Robert Dallek said at the time. Even White House aides, pleased with their boss' performance, said they'd push to make it a tradition the same way that President Kennedy pioneered the first televised debate.
Yet sometime over the past 16 months, the idea was dropped. And the grassroots effort to make "Question Time" happen again—well, the website hasn't been updated in more than a year. Obama has held periodic meetings with GOP leaders, but rarely with the full conference. And when the House majority arrives at the White House on Wednesday, the meeting with Obama and top advisers will be closed to the press. Both the White House and a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said it was mutually agreed to hold the session behind closed doors. "We need it to be [closed] and [Obama] wants it to be an open and frank exchange," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at a Tuesday briefing.
“These are people who are very risk averse. The closer they get to an election, the more nervous they become.”
It's a strange claim, considering the timing. Now, just as during the height of the health-care debate, both parties could use national exposure to harness populist zeal. Recent polls from The Hill and the Associated Press showed that Republicans have the upper hand on cutting spending while Democrats have substantial support on keeping Medicare intact. Both sides acknowledge they'll have to increase the debt ceiling, but both have shown they have political points to score before that can happen.
So why not bring back the Question Time model? "These are people who are very risk averse," said Stephen Hess, a former adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. "The closer they get to an election, the more nervous they become." Hess also noted that it might not be fair to compare the United States' liberal democracy to parliamentary democracies, which have different systems of accountability.
One obvious downside of publicizing meetings with the opposition is clear to anyone who's watched a live feed from the House or Senate floor. "Without cameras, they can be more candid," said Hess. "The minute the cameras are there, it becomes showbiz and pandering for the people at home. The Supreme Court has been pushed to allow cameras in the courtroom for almost a decade, but justices, led by recently retired David Souter, fought the effort, fearing that live TV would turn oral arguments into an episode of Judge Judy.
Several White House aides insist that Wednesday's meeting, and one the following day with the Democratic caucus, are fashioned more as meet-and-greets than raw policy discussions. Yet opening the doors to cameras could elevate the meeting and alleviate logjams over issues such as debt, spending, and Medicare.
Despite the risk, some analysts contacted by The Daily Beast said candidness can be beneficial, especially for two parties that have talked frequently about elevating the nation's political discourse. "I'm more likely to respect someone who's been engaging in a real way," said Micah Sifry, the editor of Techpresident.com, which monitors how presidents use technology. "It's another lost opportunity for them to make this a closed press event."
Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.