Can A Democracy Function When The President Can Evade His Critics?
A democracy is built upon the premise that our elected officials will routinely be confronted on their policies in the public square. And from this public engagement, this battleground of ideas, Americans will be better equipped to determine the best policies, thereby ensuring the democratic process actually strengthens the health of the nation, rather than weakens it.
But for some reason, the President of the United States is free to elude this ongoing battleground.
Only at election time, every four years, is he expected to participate in a handful of debates, and these are somewhat controlled environments. Debate questions tend to be the predictable ‘establishment’ ones, unrepresentative of the ones many Americans would like answered. All third party candidates, and the important issues they would bring to this national contest, are deliberately and systematically banned by the two major parties.
Once elected, Presidents begin to mirror ‘regal’ figureheads, suddenly ‘above’ subjecting themselves to pesky, potentially embarrassing, press conferences. They sidestep any engagements where they might be confronted on controversial policies.
President Bush went as far as to build a literal fortress around himself. It was oft-reported how his administration aggressively “screen[ed] audience members, remov[ed] protesters, and script[ed] questions prior to Bush appearing at public events.”
There are literally no laws in place that require the President of the United States to confront his critics.
And their efforts to evade this form of ‘check’ on Presidential power only seems to be getting worse. Whereas George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton held 56 and 31 news conferences, respectively, during their first three years in office, George W. Bush held only 11, and Barack Obama has held only 17.
When they agree to appear in televised interviews, rarely is it ever a hard-nosed Q&A session. Instead they opt to appear on The View, Jay Leno, or some other non-serious venue, where they are more likely to field questions about their daughters’ grades than meaningful ones, like the signing of the controversial National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
When they do find it opportune to appear for questioning on actual news programs, they carefully select venues where they believe they can easily control their message. Accordingly, political pundits — all desperate for that coveted Presidential interview — treat them deferentially, by asking softball questions. When the odd tough question does get asked, more often than not, the pundits gladly accept whatever scripted non-answer the President gives them.
Access is the bread and butter of corporate-owned news networks. The White House’s limited and conditional access ensures the corporate media establishment remains compliant. Embarrassing the President on national television, by pinning him down on an obvious lie, would be construed as “an unwise business decision.”
It could be said that the only REAL interview that Obama has endured these last three years, occurred in October of 2010, when he chose to appear on left-leaning comedy program, The Daily Show, believing he would surely be in ‘friendly territory.’ He quickly discovered that the Left, as represented by Jon Stewart, were probably the most disenchanted of all his constituents. Something tells me Jon Stewart has now lost future ‘access’ to the President.
But this seems to be less of a problem in many European democracies.
When President George W. Bush, who rarely gave interviews, sat down in 2004 for a televised interview with Carol Coleman of Radio Television Ireland, he learned very quickly that he was indeed far from Texas. This interview was the first time in 20 years that an American President had granted an interview with the RTÉ. I suspect it will be the last.
Coleman asked questions regarding Bush’s controversial Iraq policies, and when he attempted to filibuster with meaningless slogans, she interrupted him to ensure he actually addressed the questions. Unlike the American media establishment, she did not graciously accept his meaningless talking points as legitimate answers.
The interview became extremely controversial in America. The White House complained to the Irish Embassy, Laura Bush canceled her later-scheduled interview with the RTÉ, and none of the U.S. main stream media networks would air it. When it was discussed on CNN’s Larry King show and CBS, it was described as ‘contentious’.
The U.S. establishment seemed stunned that a journalist would have the audacity to try and pin the U.S. President down on his policies, when she had to know that by not accepting his dumbed-down talking points, she would embarrass him. And surely that is not behavior befitting a King, err a U.S. President.
Coleman disagreed with those sentiments:
“In Ireland, we give all our politicians a tough time,” said Ms. Coleman, who agreed with the suggestion that European politicians are more battle-hardened by the parliamentary requirement that they face regular and direct questioning from the opposition. “I felt I did my job,” she said.
This mandatory parliamentary questioning that she refers to, is also required in Great Britain.
Every Wednesday, the British Prime Minister gets directly challenged for about half-an-hour by his opposition in Parliament at the PMQs (Prime Minister Questions). In order to withstand this confrontational barrage, the Prime Minister must have a firm working knowledge of all issues, and be able to articulate why his proposals and policies are the most logical and sensible courses of action.
Conversely, when a U.S. President makes a showing before Congress — usually only once a year, at his State of the Union Address — members of both parties rise and applaud as he enters, and remain standing and clapping until he takes the podium. From here, he has a one-way conversation with the elected body. He talks, they listen, he leaves, and they bid him farewell with another standing ovation. Just like a King addressing the members of his royal court.
It could be argued that Britain’s weekly televised PMQs helps to demystify that nation’s highest office. The Prime Minister gets seen as a mere mortal — required to be responsive to the peoples’ representatives. If caught unprepared, on any given Wednesday, he could seriously embarrass himself — all to be captured on television. The U.S. President, having no equivalent requirement, gets seen as more of an insulated, powerful, reverential figurehead — like a monarch, completely shielded from ever having to defend his policies against his critics.
As Carol Coleman of the RTÉ alluded above, when journalists witness their top leader having to defend his policies each week to the Congressional opposition, they begin to view that leader as someone open to tough scrutiny, rather than someone to be treated deferentially.
And if the President could no longer shield himself from ever having to publicly defend his policies, he might reconsider passing indefensible policies.
Imagine how different the health care bill debate would have been if the President had been forced to engage with Congress each week, and to take a visibly forceful stand on critical pieces of the legislation, rather than hide in the background, cutting back-room deals, and working the back-channels.
Another unforeseen repercussion from allowing U.S. Presidents to evade critical questioning, is it actually encourages incompetent, incurious, and inarticulate people to seek the highest office in the land. Case in point: George W. Bush. It would be highly doubtful that a person incapable of defending his policies to a non-deferential journalist, would consider running for an office that required him to defend the intellectual soundness of his policies every single week against his fiercest critics, on national television.
Even Tony Blair, who had a reputation for performing exceedingly well at PMQs, later admitted in interviews, that they had been a constant source of stress for him. At his final PMQs he told the MPs:
“This is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And, if it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”
It is ironic that the United States, a nation founded upon the rejection of monarchy, would allow its top leader to evade his critics, much like a monarch, while Great Britain — with a Queen still residing in Buckingham Palace — would demand the very opposite from its Prime Minister.