Last night, after belatedly consulting with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), President Obama agreed to move his speech to next Thursday, so as not to conflict with the Politico-NBC News Republican primary debate. From the start, this jobs speech has been a disaster, and he’s not even stepped to the podium.
By trying to big-foot the Republicans and then retreating, the president put an exclamation point on the complaints of his base. Weak. Incompetent. Unorganized. And those descriptors are from liberals. As for conservatives, they can hardly believe their good fortune. Obama has, more effectively than they could have hoped, demonstrated that the speech is largely a political stunt designed to put Republicans on the defensive rather than address our economic meltdown and fiscal woes.
Moreover, the speech kerfuffle once again leaves Boehner as the top dog. In the fight over the continuing resolution he forced the White House to cut spending from the fiscal year 2011 budget. In the debt-ceiling debate, Boehner stared down the White House on taxes and got a deal with spending cuts equal to the raise in the debt ceiling. And now this.
Some might think this is much to do about nothing. And in a sense, political scuffles like this mean virtually nothing compared to the unemployment rate or the downgrade in the U.S. credit rating. On the other hand, for millions of people who don’t follow politics minute by minute and have no deep interest in policy arguments, events like this loom large. They cement narratives. And it is those more casual political observers, often independent voters, whom Obama has already turned off. This will certainly make matters worse.
As for the timing of the debate and the speech, the GOP candidates can anticipate, rather than respond to, each utterance. That will keep the focus on them, which may be bad for weaker performers but will aid the more experienced debaters. All of the Republicans can be counted on to say harsh things about the president, but in advance of the speech they will be pressed to tell us what they would offer to the country. That’s a tougher proposition.
Republicans should not get cocky. Obama’s ratings are in the basement, the press coverage has turned largely negative and the economy is listing. But things can change. And most important, Republicans must still present an alternative to Obama who is more credible, more knowledgable and more competent than the current president. It might seem like a low bar right now, but come the general election they will want the best contender possible. Obama may be lousy at governing, but he still has some campaign skills.