That’s the question some Washington hands and veteran journalists are asking in the wake of last Thursday’s day-long “health care summit” at Blair House between President Obama and about forty leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress. They’re saying that between Obama’s first spontaneous encounter with House Republicans back on January 29th, his televised appearance at the Senate Democratic caucus a few days later, and now this, a new expectation of public engagement is being created, in the same way that we now expect to see the opposition party give a response to the State of the Union speech, or to the President’s weekly radio address.
For example, here’s NPR’s Guy Raz talking with presidential historian Robert Dallek last Saturday, referring to the health care summit:
RAZ: Robert Dallek, can you recall a time when legislators were able to interact with the president in such an informal way? I mean, it’s almost like the way they do in Britain
Prof. DALLEK: Yes.
RAZ: with the Prime Minister.
Prof. DALLEK: Yes, that’s what I was thinking. That it’s like question and answer session in the parliament.
RAZ: Ronald Reagan made God bless America or God bless the United States of America an almost compulsory signoff in presidential speeches. All presidents use it now. He was really the one who started using it regularly.
Prof. DALLEK: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: George W. Bush introduced the flag lapel pin.
Prof. DALLEK: Yes.
RAZ: Has President Obama brought in a new tradition that every subsequent president will have to take part in? I mean, a televised Q and A session with the opposition.
Prof. DALLEK: Yeah. This may well be a development that future presidents are going to feel compelled
RAZ: I mean, the public is going to expect it, right?
Prof. DALLEK: They might. Well, you see, the way they expect debates. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon first televised presidential debate, and ever since then, you can’t escape having debates. So this may have created a standard, a precedent, and I think its fine. This is what democracy is and too much of it in the past has been done behind closed doors.
Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter has a similar view.
Now, when Congress seems hopelessly out of date, we’ve adapted a fresh approach from abroad. After C-Span began airing the British Parliament’s Question Time, many people asked why we couldn’t do something similar here. To his credit, John McCain proposed just that in 2008. Obama wouldn’t embrace it publicly, but he liked the idea of mixing it up with Republicans, and in the early days of his presidency he met with the House GOP caucus. When Obama learned that Minority Leader John Boehner had instructed members to vote against the stimulus bill before the president showed up, Obama felt played. Instead of fulfilling his campaign promise to negotiate health care in front of the cameras, he handed it to surrogates, who cut backroom deals. But after the Massachusetts fiasco, Obama adapted Question Time for his own purposes. He routed Republican lawmakers at a televised retreat in January, a success that convinced him he could make a public summit on health care work.
The reason the Blair House summit will likely be repeated (on terrorism, perhaps, or jobs) is that, this time, the GOP looked good, too. The win-win event gave the party a chance to move beyond obstruction and showcase some of its lesser-known leaders. Even when they and others assaulted the truth, there was time for the record to be set straight. The tone remained civil.
So when the Republican presidential campaign gets going in 2011, expect Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin & Co. to squabble over who would best handle congressional leaders in bipartisan summits. And expect Obama backers to point to his performances as proof that their man can already do the job.
What do you think? Can we build on these events–which each side may be trying to use for partisan advantage? Speaking for myself, I certainly think so.