A day later, White House declares speech faceoff ‘irrelevant’

September 1, 2011

To hear White House aides tell it, President Obama didn’t capitulate to House Speaker John A. Boehner when he agreed to postpone by a day his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress. Obama wasn’t a poor communicator. He hadn’t caved to Republicans.

There wasn’t even a story here.

“What flap?” press secretary Jay Carney deadpanned at his daily briefing when asked about the scheduling kerfuffle, which had dominated the Washington news cycle for nearly 24 hours.

Obama had aggressively scheduled his speech for precisely the same time this coming Wednesday as a long-scheduled Republican presidential candidates debate in California. But the gambit backfired when Boehner (R-Ohio) objected and forced him to come Thursday instead, providing instant fodder for pundits, bloggers and the “Twitterverse.”

“I spent a great deal of time with [Obama] this morning, and it never came up. Honestly,” Carney said. “I know it’s catnip [to reporters], but we’re not focused on it. Sideshows don’t matter.”

There are days when the formidable White House press office is engaged in making news, putting out stories to drive the media narrative. This past Wednesday was one of those days, when the administration disseminated a copy of Obama’s letter to Boehner.

Then there are days when the press office is engaged in a full-fledged effort to pretend a story isn’t happening — or desperately try to make one go away. One of those days was Thursday.

“The whole thing is silly,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” morning show. Pfeiffer cast the episode as an inside-the-Beltway distraction due in part to the slow news days of summer.

Yet the nothing-to-see-here spin was hard to square with the fact that it was the White House that created the drama in the first place. In announcing Obama’s intent to speak at the same time as the Republican debate, Carney on Wednesday called it “coincidental” and went to great pains to suggest that scheduling a rare joint session required significant planning and that the date had been carefully selected.

“There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling a speech before Congress, a joint session speech,” Carney had said. “There are other issues that you have to deal with, as well as congressional scheduling and the president’s scheduling.”

Contrast that with the breezy air Carney assumed a day later after Boehner rejected the date: “If Thursday’s the day, Thursday’s the day. It’s irrelevant. It’s small stuff. Wednesday was the soonest possible day upon Congress’s return from recess. But Thursday is fine with us.”

The public, Carney said, doesn’t “give a lick what day the president speaks before Congress. They want to hear from him, want to know what his proposals are, want to know if he has serious, sound ideas to grow the economy and create jobs.”

Right, a reporter said, but if the president and Congress can’t agree on a calendar date for a speech, how could the American people expect them to pass a major jobs plan to boost the ailing economy?

Carney, who had been a Time magazine White House correspondent, chided his former colleagues: “You’re too focused on the narrow confines of what’s happening . . . in the handful of blocks between here and Congress.”

In fact, behind the scenes, the White House was not as dismissively removed from the whole affair as Carney claimed it was. Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, spread the word that White House Chief of Staff William Daley had called Boehner and run the details by him before Obama sent the letter.

“No objections were raised,” Carney said.

Boehner’s office has said the speaker never cleared a precise time with the White House.

A prominent Obama supporter, Democratic strategist James Carville, said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the White House’s attempt to step on the debate had been wrong and “out of bounds.”

Late Wednesday night, Obama’s reelection campaign sent an e-mail to the president’s supporters with a simple subject line: 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.”

On Thursday evening, Boehner announced that Obama will speak at 7 p.m. this coming Thursday, meaning the speech 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.

Obama “will have the opportunity to watch the game,” Carney promised.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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Data: Washington Post-ABC News poll

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