Coincidences don’t happen in presidential politics. Ever.

at 02:32 PM ET, 08/31/2011


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about a clean extension of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization which expires in mid-September in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing
There are no coincidences in presidential politics.

Strategists spend hours poring over every word a president utters, every policy position he takes and every state he visits, a level of attention to detail that makes happenstance virtually nonexistent.

And so, when the White House announced today that President Obama would deliver his much-anticipated jobs speech on Sept. 7 at 8 pm — the exact same day and time that the 2012 Republican candidates are scheduled to debate in California — the idea that the timing was purely coincidental was, well, far-fetched.

It’s clear that this White House saw an opportunity to drive a major — and direct — contrast between President Obama and his potential Republican rivals and took it.

As to whether that’s a good idea, strategists — even within the Democratic party — are divided.

First, let’s get the official line from the White House on the scheduling of the speech.

“It is coincidental,” said spokesman Jay Carney at today’s press briefing. “There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling a joint session of Congress for a speech. You can never find a perfect time. ... There are many channels to watch the president and to watch the debate.”

True enough — but not the whole truth. (The air of “truthiness” one might say.)

Yes, it is hard to schedule a presidential address to Congress. And, yes, there are lots and lots of cable channels.

But, the political reality is that by scheduling the jobs speech at the same time as the debate the White House is trying to force a choice and a contrast.

The choice is over which event you want to watch. While picture-in-picture technology has come along way (or so we hear — we don’t know how to use it on The Fix home TV), it’s not really possible to watch two (non sporting) events simultaneously.

The White House is well aware of that reality and they want to force viewers into a choice — believing that most people will choose a presidential address on jobs and the economy over a debate between Republican presidential candidates.

The contrast the White House is hoping to force is between a sitting incumbent spending his time trying to find solutions to the big problems facing the country and a motley crew of Republicans fighting amongst themselves as they all try to run to the extreme ideological right.

Opinion was deeply divided about the smarts of the strategy.

Some applauded the move as a sign of much-needed aggression from the White House “Whether intentional or not it sends a signal that the president and White House are coming out of their corner between rounds fists up, on their toes and ready to fight,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

But there were others within the party who worried that the White House’s scheduling gambit might backfire.

“It’s a bad idea [and] seems a little small,” said one Democratic consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly. “And it suggests perhaps his jobs plan wont be that appealing because now the coverage will be about the strategy and not the substance.”

Another senior Democratic operative suggested that scheduling the speech simultaneously with the GOP debate actually would muddy rather than clarify the contrast the White House is hoping for heading into 2012.

“If you’re trying to define this as a choice and not a referendum, why step on the opportunity for the American people to see the alternatives?” the source asked.

Regardless of where you come down on the rightness of the strategy — and make no mistake that it is a strategy -- it’s hard to dispute that it’s “game on” in the 2012 presidential race.

And that’s welcome news for political junkies. Even if we will have to figure out how to watch two channels at the same time.

 
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