First, President Obama changed the time for his big jobs speech.
Then, his staff changed its tune.
A day after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) forced Obama to postpone by a day his jobs speech to a special joint session of Congress — moving it from next Wednesday to Thursday — White House aides hit the morning television and radio circuit to try to do damage control.
With Democrats, Republicans and the media debating whether the president had caved and looked weak in the face of Boehner’s opposition, administration staffers pushed back hard in an effort to tamp down the budding narrative.
“The whole thing is silly,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown.” Then Pfeiffer painted the story as an inside-the-Beltway distraction: “It’s fitting that it happened on the last day of August, since it’s sort of a Washington, D.C., obsession.”
Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to media coverage on the scheduling dispute as a “sideshow” on CBS News Radio. And on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Carney said of the change of dates: “Know what, that’s fine. Our interest is not having a political back-and-forth. Our interest is speaking to the people, speaking to Congress, about the need to do things to create jobs and get the economy going.”
That nothing-to-see-here spin appeared to be a sudden change from the message the White House was offering Wednesday when Carney implied that scheduling a rare joint session required significant planning and foresight and that the date had been carefully selected.
That Obama had picked precisely the same date and time as a long-scheduled Republican presidential candidates debate was merely “coincidental,” Carney insisted while speaking to reporters at his daily briefing Wednesday.
“There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling a speech before Congress, a joint session speech,” he said. “There are other issues that you have to deal with, as well as congressional scheduling and the President’s scheduling.”
Behind the scenes Thursday, however, there was evidence that the White House was not as casually nonchalant about the whole affair as Pfeiffer and Carney appeared to be on television. Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, spread the word that the White House had, indeed, cleared the time and date of Obama’s joint session speech with Boehner before sending the formal letter of request round noon Wednesday.
According to the officials, White House Chief of Staff William Daley had called Boehner and run the details by him. “No objections were raised,” Carney said on MSNBC.
Boehner’s office has said the speaker never cleared a precise time with the White House.
Furthermore, the White House officials reasoned in retrospect, there was no benefit to the White House trying to upstage the Republican debate. If anything, such a tactic might have helped Obama’s opponents politically more than the White House, the officials said.
But the Obama team didn’t sound so rationally level-headed in an e-mail from the 2012 re-election campaign to supporters late Wednesday. The subject line read simply: Frustrated.
“Next week, I will deliver the details of the plan and call on lawmakers to pass it. Whether they will do the job they were elected to do is ultimately up to them,” Obama wrote in the e-mail. “But both you and I can pressure them to do the right thing. We can send the message that the American people are playing by the rules and meeting their responsibilities — and it’s time for our leaders in Congress to meet theirs. And we must hold them accountable if they don’t.”
White House officials have not nailed down a time for the Thursday speech, but they have consulted the television schedule and pledged that Obama’s address won’t conflict with the other big event that night: the National Football League season-opener between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, which starts at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.