What if the president gave a major speech and no one heard it?
Not a likely scenario, yet this was the question in play for several days as President Obama requested and was kinda-sorta denied an audience before a joint session of Congress. He wasn’t flatly denied, though House Speaker John Boehner strongly suggested that the Republican-controlled House would prefer that he speak the following night, Sept. 8. Logistics, security and various technicalities were cited.
As Kevin Smith, Boehner’s communications director, explained to me:
“No one in the speaker’s office — not the speaker, not any staff — signed off on the date the White House announced abruptly. It’s unfortunate the White House ignored standard protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement. We want to find common ground to help create jobs and lasting economic growth that our country so desperately needs, and we look forward to hearing the president’s speech Thursday night.”
Of course, that night, which Obama ultimately accepted, was also problematic because the prime-time slot coincided with something far more important than a presidential speech on jobs and the economy — football!
The Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints kick off at 8:30. Would the president mind too terribly much speaking before the game so as not to interfere? Once again, Obama obliged.
Much has been written and said about the political implications of this folie a deuxbetween the Democratic president and the Republican House leadership. Whose fault was it that things became so testy? The White House’s claim that Boehner had agreed to the date is false, according to Boehner’s office. When notified that the president wanted to address Congress, Boehner thanked the caller for the heads-up, but nothing was agreed upon when the White House prematurely announced the date.
From the Republican perspective, there was no real downside to making Obama feel “frustrated,” as the president described his feelings in an e-mail to campaign supporters. Boehner’s resistance to the president’s request, even if justified under the circumstances described, merely added to the growing perception that Obama is weak. He can’t get no respect. Recall that Boehner also refused to return the president’s phone calls for several days during the debt-ceiling debate.
Rude, or just shrewd?
The answer depends on whose side you’re on and whose team is “winning.” Though Democrats may protest the speaker’s “rudeness,” they also feel the increasing loserness of Obama. As pure gamesmanship, whether intended, Boehner’s move was brilliant. Just as Obama’s team had to know that his original request conflicted with a much-ballyhooed Republican debate, Boehner’s surely knew that the big game was on the alternative date he suggested. If Obama’s speech wasn’t compelling enough for Congress to pull a hasty resolution together, then what does it say that he can’t compete with a ballgame?
To be fair, all presidents have to be concerned with the timing of their public addresses. The Bush administration was no exception. Worse than going up against a football game in the idiocracy formerly known as the United States was competing with “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.”
In one sense, Obama will profit from his positioning just before kickoff. Some percentage of viewers will tune in to the last 15 minutes of a speech they otherwise might have missed. In another sense, however, Obama’s presidency is further diminished by his perceived inability to prevail as the more important event of an evening.
This isn’t just any speech but one we’ve been awaiting for, oh, about three years — through a recession, unemployment that never dipped below the 8 percent level predicted way back when and an earthquake followed by a hurricane that disrupted the Obamas’ summer vacation. This is it. The one. The very speech that finally is going to lay out The Plan to put America back to work and get that old economy breaking a sweat again.
It’s important to the country. It may even be consequential. But the message thus far is that the president can’t command an audience. Congressional Republicans, with a little help from certain media cohorts, may have engineered the public’s consumption of that message, but they can’t really be blamed for the content.