President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spent part of Tuesday playing ping pong, a sport that was invented in Britain. Cameron would have done better to introduce Obama to another of Britain’s distinctive institutions: question time in the House of Commons.
Question time sums up the difference between the American and the British systems of government. In our system, Congress and the president are separate and opposed, by design. The president doesn’t go to Congress except to deliver his State of the Union address, and even that is largely a twentieth century innovation of the Progressives.
In the British system, and many other parliamentary systems around the world, the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party in Parliament. In an important sense, there is no division in Britain between the executive and the legislature, because if the legislature does not support the current prime minister, it is time to find a new one.
In America, we rely on checks and balances to restrain government.
In Britain, which lacks structural checks, they rely, in part, on the ability of Members of Parliament to ask tough questions of the Prime Minister, and all the members of his cabinet.
This is political theatre at its finest, and while it is true that most questions are more about political point scoring than policy, it still matters. Prime Ministers who can’t fight their corner, who can’t handle tough questions, and who don’t have quickness of mind and a command of their subject rapidly lose the confidence of their party, and then their office. Question time is a test of grace under pressure.
In the United States, by contrast, we have grown all too accustomed to being lectured to. Even more than his predecessors, Obama has become the College-Professor-in-Chief. As Fox News pointed out last year, Obama has held fewer question and answer session with reporters than any recent president. He’s compensated, to an extent, by granting more interviews, an approach that historian Martha Joynt Kumar said was no accident: “He prefers explaining a particular issue, and so what he likes to do is do interviews.”
The problem with interviews is that they give the president complete control of who attends. That shapes the agenda and the discussion, and leaves the recipient of the interview so grateful for the opportunity that they rarely ask challenging questions.
It would be wonderful to have an institution in this country where the president had to explain why he thinks that encouraging Brazil and Saudi Arabia to pump more oil while restricting drilling and raising taxes on oil companies here is a good idea.
Or why he believes that what we really need to dig ourselves out of a recession caused by easy credit and too much borrowing is more credit and more borrowing.
Or why he believes that the cause of peace in the Middle East will be advanced by relentlessly demanding that Israel take risks for peace, while ignoring the risks they have already taken and the missile attacks they have suffered as a result.
Obama prefers the deferential format of interviews to the more rough and tumble approach of the House of Commons. On second thought, it’s obvious why Obama stuck to ping pong this week. Who wants to put themselves in a position where they’re called upon to defend the indefensible?
Ted R. Bromund is Senior Research Fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.