President Obama could be in for some unscripted and possibly uncomfortable moments when he holds a town hall meeting at Binghamton University in upstate New York Friday.
His experience will help to answer the question of whether such events can still be genuine forums where everyday citizens express their views, whether they've become megaphones for special interests who try to hijack the proceedings, or whether they are just staged affairs designed to make a politician look good.
At the congressional level, there is cause for concern. A Wall Street Journal survey this week found that, "Congressional town hall meetings, a valued way for lawmakers to hear impromptu feedback from their constituents, are increasingly turning into a form of orchestrated theater – a platform for national political forces to advance their point of view. Immigration advocates, tea-party organizers, privacy-rights activists and others are using community meetings during this month's congressional recess to pressure politicians, drive news coverage or produce a bit of video that might gain attention to their cause."
The question is whether this dynamic spreads to Obama's town hall meeting at Binghamton.
Presidential sessions tend to be more tightly controlled and tamer than congressional meetings, if only because security is so much tighter. But the unexpected has happened before.
At a September 2010 town hall meeting in Washington D.C., Velma Hart, an African-American woman from Upper Marlboro, Md., provided a dramatic and surprising moment when she told Obama, "Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."
She added: "I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people. and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet." Obama said he understood that many Americans were still struggling but added that his policies would help them in the long run.
This summer, some legislators have cut back or eliminated their town hall meetings during the congressional recess because of concern about heckling and harassment from the audiences.
That's what happened Tuesday night at a town hall meeting in Dallas aimed at rallying support for defunding President Obama's health care law and attended by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who favors repeal. Cruz was interrupted three times by hecklers. He calmly asked that he be allowed to finish his remarks but two protesters chanted, "You have health care, we should too!"
Cruz replied, "Thank you for sharing your views. You know, part of the First Amendment is about respecting others." At that point, Cruz supporters chanted, "USA! USA!" and drowned out the protesters.
Cruz then said, "I'll make an observation about those two young men. Number One, I agree with them. They should have health care and Obamacare is causing more and more people struggling to climb the economic ladder to lose their health care." The conservative senator, referring to the hecklers, added: "Every time they've come to protest in Texas, they've sent a small group of people, and y'all have outnumbered them two, and three, and four to one."
However, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., had a different experience in Colorado. "In town halls across the state, I've talked to many Coloradans," Bennet said in an email to supporters and reporters, "and one thing is clear: The conversation in Washington is miles apart from the conversation happening in Grand Junction, Lamar, or Denver. It isn't even close.
"Maybe the clearest example of this dysfunction is the tea party in Washington threatening to force a government shutdown unless we immediately repeal health care reform. But these ideologues don't have a clue what they would do for the thousands of Coloradans who would lose their health insurance if that were to happen."
Bennet used the email to solicit money for his re-election campaign, asking for "$5 or more right now."
Overall, the situation this summer appears less strident and angry than it was in 2009, when town hall meetings during Congress's August recess turned into nasty confrontations over Obama's health care legislation. Conservative opponents packed many meetings and got extensive news coverage. The health care bill passed Congress but the Republicans took control of the House in 2010.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.
Corrected 8/22/13: A previous version of this blog entry incorrectly spelled the last name of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.