The Wrong Question to Ask the President of the United States

Given an opportunity to interrogate Obama on camera, a prominent tea party activist squandered it by complaining about Joe Biden's incivility. What was he thinking?



Afforded an opportunity to publicly question President Obama, I'd confront him on his terrible civil liberties record. Someone else might reasonably press him on health care, the economy, the war in Libya, or any number of other importance issues. But Ryan Rhodes, a prominent tea party activist, took a different approach. Face to face with the most powerful man on earth, cameras rolling, he said this: "When you're talking about civility how is your vice president calling us terrorists?"

As my colleague Chris Good reported, "Biden allegedly made the 'terrorists' remark at a closed-door meeting with congressional Democrats, though the account is disputed." Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Biden did in fact draw an analogy between tea partiers and terrorists. What on earth was Rhodes thinking? Is that really the thing to ask the president of the United States?

To be clear, I don't care that Rhodes was combative, or that he didn't show Obama deference. I just think there are about 47,047 better questions he could've posed. Despite picking the worst one, he's being celebrated on Fox News and elsewhere for what is clearly a missed opportunity. If you're someone who thinks the president should be pressed on the most important issue of the day, or the one that's getting too little attention given its importance -- well, Rhodes didn't do that. If you think it's important to ask Obama the question likely to damage his reelection chances, or draw him into a gaffe, or flummox him, Rhodes didn't do that either.

Oh, I think I understand Rhodes' mindset. He thinks that the tea party has been tarnished as uncivil by the mainstream media, that there is a double standard when liberals use extreme language, and that he could highlight a hypocrisy and show up Obama by throwing his vice president's words in his face. Again granting his version of events for the sake of argument, the thing is, who cares? I don't mean to say that being treated unfairly in the news cycle isn't something to challenge or complain about, but it's obviously trivial compared to other things one might ask the president. If there is hypocrisy, it is trivial compared to other hypocrisies of the Obama administration. Does he really not understand that the vast majority of American voters outside the tea party couldn't care less what Joe Biden said about the group in a closed-door meeting?

This is what happens when you live in Fox News land: You mistake Sean Hannity's news judgment for what is actually significant, and you behave for all the world like you care more about a combative exchange with the president than challenging him on foreign policy, jobs, the economy, etc.

Or think of it this way:

-- "Grandpa, I heard that before I was born you got in an argument with the president."

-- "Yes, grandson, it was played on TV too. That was a crucial moment in American history. The debt was out of control. We were at war in several countries."

-- "So what did you ask him, grandpa?"

-- "Oh, um, I asked whether his vice-president called my friends a nasty name."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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