Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obama Dialogues are More Monologue

Much has been made of the chance for true, interactive democracy offered by the freewheeling town hall format that lawmakers are using in health care forums across the country.

But what the White House is calling a "town hall meeting" does not quite follow in the tradition of the public-driven forums that sprouted centuries ago in New England.

It's more like a press conference for the public.

In an orderly fashion, selected members of the audience pose brief questions, and the president elaborates.

And elaborates. And elaborates.

A look at President Obama's health care "town hall" Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., shows the president out-spoke his audience by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1.

Here's the scorecard.

Obama: 8,619 words.

Audience: 1,186 words.

That's hardly the kind of even-handed exchange of ideas that marked the town meetings of colonial America.

But Carolyn Lukensmeyer, whose company AmericaSpeaks organizes modern "town meetings" across the country to tackle policy issues, said public officials in general no longer use that spontaneous, rowdy and interactive format -- even though they kept the name.

The term "town meeting" used to refer to a gathering where decision-makers and opinion-givers clashed in the interest of forging legislative decisions then and there. But now the modern town hall refers to any old public forum.

Though some New England towns still use the traditional format, Lukensmeyer said the "faux" version used by major politicians and officials is much more "leader-dominated."

"What they became was campaign events," Lukensmeyer said. "Ninety percent of the time the candidate is talking."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described the president's town hall as part of "the pulpit." More commonly known as the bully pulpit, it's that intangible space the president -- any president -- occupies that allows him to hammer the message before an audience that, no matter the time of day or year, extends from coast to coast.

And the president's not afraid to use it, especially at a time when he needs to take back the momentum behind health care reform in the face of shifting public opinion.


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