I've refrained from saying anything about Barack Obama's appearance at the House Republican Conference, because I hate to be a spoilsport about these sort of things -- liberals were enjoying it so much and all, not to mention the goo goos, who love this sort of thing.
As far as Obama's performance, the best thing you can read is by Kevin Drum, who noted that "The guy at the mike always has the advantage." Yes, I think that George W. Bush would have done just fine in that format. Granted, there are some skills that help: knowing policy details, knowing facts from fiction, and being able to compose word sequences that look suspiciously like sentences on the fly are all useful. Of the last five presidents, I'd say that Obama is second best to Clinton in those abilities -- Reagan had problems with the first two of those skills, George H.W. Bush with the third one, and George W. Bush took the trifecta -- all three! And despite all that, I'm sure Bush would have done just fine.
The larger question is whether such confrontations are a Good Thing, and one that we should borrow from the Brits. Oddly enough, however, nothing I've seen has referred to a good 'ole American tradition that allows for what Ross Douthat wants -- for the president to be "publicly cross-examined." That institution is the full dress presidential press conference, an institution that has been sadly neglected by Barack Obama. Press conferences have several advantages over a direct confrontation between the president and Members of Congress. First, the press is free to ask questions that Congress -- including the opposition party -- may not want to raise. Second, whatever bias individual members of the press corps may have, at least they are not pre-programmed partisans, more interested in partisan points than in eliciting information. Third, while it is certainly true that individual reporters are apt to be self-aggrandizing, they are much more likely to...how do I put this...um...to tell the truth, I guess, than are Members of Congress. Accuracy is much valued among reporters; it is not exactly a major calling card for Members of Congress, especially those from the opposition party.
The institution of Question Time is also more appropriate for Britain's system than for the American version of democracy for a couple of other reasons. First, Congress holds plenty of reasonably high visibility hearings, in which members of both parties have plenty of chance to question, and attack if they choose, executive branch officials. In Britain, a back bencher from the majority party might challenge the government by asking a question; in the United States, unhappy Members of Congress can convene a hearing. Moreover, in Britain the minority party really has no way of influencing events, beyond raising issues, asking questions, and campaigning for the next election In Congress, the minority has real opportunities, if Members so choose, to help make policy -- being the party of "No" is to a large extent a choice, not a constitutional arrangement.
When John McCain was peddling the proposal during the campaign, George Will said, "President McCain would not lack ways and venues for conversing with legislators without reducing Congress to a prop in a skit of president-centrism." That's exactly correct -- that's what Obama did to the House Republicans last week. The thing is that in Britain, ordinary Members of Parliament really are inferior to the Prime Minister and the members of the Government. Not in the United States: the Constitution envisions equal branches. There is no more reason to expect Members of Congress to quiz the president than there is for the president to question them. They are Constitutional equals.
So: more press conferences. If people like, add regular YouTube press conferences to supplement, but not replace, regular press conferences. More attention paid by the press to meaningful Congressional hearings (today's DADT hearing? Yes. Is Mark McGwire a threat to the republic? Not so much). And leave Question Time to the folks who know how to do it; if we're to get all bent out of shape by Justice Alito's mild faux pas, I really don't think we want to even think about what might happen with a real Question Time.