Question Time: Should Obama Sell Health Care British Style?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When discussing health care on ABC's "This Week" roundtable on Sunday and its chances of success, Liz Cheney weighed-in to say "what I would like to see is President Obama take some questions... he's not answering questions, he's not speaking out..."

And Cheney might have a point.

If the White House expects Congress to pass this bill before his State of the Union address later this month, there are still lingering questions that have yet to be squared, such as taxpayer funding for abortions, the excise tax (taxing high-cost insurance policies), and why Congress will reconcile the final version of this bill behind closed doors, something Mr. Obama pledged he would never do during the campaign. Even California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, once a solid supporter of health care reform, lashed out recently that the bill has "become a trough of bribes, deals and loopholes.'"

All the question marks hanging over this bill, are starting to take a heavy toll on the President's approval rating. A recent CBS News poll shows President Obama's handling of health care at an all-time low, with only 36 percent of Americans approving of his handling of health care, 54 percent disapproving, while six out of 10 Americans disappointed with both Republican and Democrats management of the bill.

So it occurred to me that President Obama and Congress could have saved themselves some grief had they experimented with the British House of Commons "Question Time'" ritual, in which the British Prime Minister, as a member of Parliament, answers questions from members of Parliament every Wednesday.

As most probably know, this time-honored British tradition is broadcast on C-Span every Sunday night. The exchanges are spirited, rowdy, disruptive, with lots of political posturing going on, that cannot be denied, but it does put the Prime Minister front and center of any storms that are gathering force and how his or her government plans to solve it.

In a perfect world, I thought, wouldn't it be great if President Obama selected a neutral turf, such as Georgetown University, with an open invitation to members of the 111th Congress to show up and ask him any questions they might have about the health care bill. This debate, of course, would be broadcast on C-Span.

Margaret Todd, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the House of Commons "Question Time'' shows an intellectual liveliness that is lacking in our American system, but wonders whether any U.S. president would have the courage to meet members of Congress face-to-face and answer their questions. Still, Todd is of the opinion that "if anyone is sufficiently articulate and quick on his feet to manage it, it would be Obama.''

Maybe I'm a hopeless dreamer, but if President Obama decided to answer questions from members of Congress, especially on details of the murkier provisions of the health care bill, do you realize the potential upside of such an exchange?

First, since this discussion would be broadcast on C-Span, it answers the White House's lack of transparency criticism, where viewers would see for themselves how the president confronts any discrepancies, while explaining the merits of the bill.

Secondly, and most importantly, such an open exchange might help sell the package to those members of the American public a bit queasy over the bill, when they see the president not afraid to step to the plate and answer questions, any question posed by Congress over why this bill shouldn't be passed. After courageously addressing concerns, doubts, and misgivings about the bill, the president can then tell members of Congress that the ball is now in their court. He did his job, now it's their turn to pass the bill and extend coverage to more than 30 million Americans.

Linda Colley, Professor of History at Princeton University, isn't sure that any president would be comfortable in such a setting, but the distinguished British historian does point out that think Prime Minister's "Question Time'' does keep the Prime Minister on his or her toes, and demonstrates to the public how much on the ball they are."

So with the clock ticking on whether this bill passes or dies an untimely death, which would deliver a mighty blow to the Obama administration, I think the ball first must be placed in the White House's court on how best to sell health care to an uneasy bloc of the American public. A presidential town hall meeting with members of Congress might be the best line of attack, even at this late hour.

At least I'm relieved to know I'm not the only dreamer out there.

David Epstein, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, tells me that he "often wished that we could have a tradition like "Question Time'' that would allow the kind of back and forth''. "But Epstein questions how productive such an exchange would be, since "we (the United States) place so little value on true debate.''