No more Bubble Boy

NO MORE BUBBLE BOY…. At an event in Elkhart, Indiana, today, an audience member asked President Obama, “You have come to our county and asked us to trust you, but those that you have appointed to your cabinet are not trustworthy and cannot handle their own budget and tax issues. I’m one of those who thinks you need to have a beer with Sean Hannity, so tell me why, from my side…”

As my friend Alex Koppelman noted, when the questioner elicited boos, the president intervened, silenced the crowd, and said the woman raised a legitimate question. After addressing the substance, Obama joked:

“Now, with respect to Sean Hannity, I didn’t know that he had invited me for a beer. But I will take that under advisement. Generally, his opinion of me does not seem to be very high. But, uh, but I’m always good for a beer.”

Now, it’s always good when a public official can defuse tension with a little humor, and I’m very glad Obama defended the woman’s right to ask a confrontational question. But reading about this, another angle comes to mind: since when can critics of the president attend public events and ask unscreened questions?

Apparently, as of about 20 days ago.

Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, White House staffers implemented what were generally called “Bubble Boy” policies. The goal was to shield the former president from those who may have disagreed with him or might ask him questions he didn’t want to answer. The anti-dissent policy was often taken to comical lengths, including blocking people from attending public events based on their bumper stickers, requiring loyalty oaths for tickets, and in at least one instance, rehearsing a town-hall meeting a day in advance.

In contrast, consider Obama’s approach to diversity of thought. The new president traveled to an economically-depressed community that voted heavily for his opponent in November. Tickets to the event were publicly available to anyone, no loyalty oaths or Democratic fealty required. White House staffers didn’t check bumper-stickers for conservative messages, and there was no “blacklist” of Republicans who would be denied entry. There were no hand-picked questions and no hand-picked questioners.

So this is what it’s like to have a president with the courage of his convictions, and the confidence to talk to Americans who may disagree with him. I’d almost forgotten.