The world will little note nor long remember the Great Scheduling Kerfuffle. But the episode speaks volumes — none of them attractive — about the current state of political affairs. The squabble began with President Obama looking petty and partisan and ended with House Speaker John Boehner looking churlish and disrespectful. If the two had gotten together to figure out how to make Americans think even less of Washington politicians, they couldn’t have done much better.
The Obama administration was the original sinner. You had to feel bad for White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, sent out to tell the lions of the press that, really, it was pure coincidence that the preferred date for the president’s speech conflicted with the GOP presidential debate and, really, no other date would work. Come on. The White House may have thought it was clever to step on the GOP’s message. Instead it clumsily tripped over its own cuteness. If you know the neighbors have a big block party scheduled for a certain night, it’s bad manners to announce your own at the exact same time. Especially if your relations with the neighbors aren’t very good to begin with — and you’re hoping they won’t fight you at the zoning board over that renovation you’ve got in the works. Whether or not it thought it had a green light from the speaker’s office, the White House knew it was jabbing a juvenile elbow into Republicans with its choice of date.
Boehner’s response was no more mature. When the president invites himself over, you accept graciously, even if the date doesn’t quite work for you. You don’t conjure up “parliamentary or logistical impediments,” as Boehner did in his return letter. Instead of seizing the high road, Boehner lowered himself to the White House’s level — and appeared boorish in the process. It is hard to see how headlines such as “GOP forces Obama to reschedule jobs speech” (Washingtonpost.com) or “Speaker Says No, So Obama Delays Speech” (The New York Times) serve the Republican cause. The president started the fight and therefore gets the greater share of blame for it, but his decision to reschedule left Republicans looking small.
The larger question, of course, is whether all this focus on the speech is a smart move by the White House. I have my doubts, in large part because I don’t think there’s some magic, previously unmentioned, enormously and immediately effective bullet for the president to unveil. Instead, there are a series of smallish-bore steps that could have marginally positive effects. In that circumstance, the greater the buildup, the bigger the letdown. The drum roll has been building for weeks. The majestic setting of a joint session of Congress further ups the political ante. For the country’s sake, not simply Obama’s, I hope the president has something to say that’s worth the wait — and the kerfuffle.