The dust-up underscored Obama’s dilemma as he attempts to show progress on the economy while distancing himself from a dysfunctional Washington.
The speech before a joint session of Congress, one of the grand symbols of the presidency, reflects a calculated attempt by Obama to regain an advantage in his bitter battle with Republicans over the economy, restore fast-eroding public confidence in his leadership and, perhaps, turn around a presidency with less than 15 months before he faces the voters.
White House officials said Obama would lay out a much-anticipated package of new proposals to stimulate job growth, a package expected to include spending programs for roads, bridges, school repair and training for the long-term unemployed.
Yet simply scheduling the address quickly turned into another partisan spit-fest.
It began around lunchtime Wednesday, when Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders requesting an 8 p.m. speech next Wednesday — a time that coincided with a previously scheduled Republican presidential debate.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), citing parliamentary and logistical “impediments,” sent a letter back that urged the president to come instead on the next night.
Democrats charged that the speaker was out of line and that presidents are always given deference in scheduling speeches to Congress. A Boehner spokesman countered that the White House “ignored decades — if not centuries — of the protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement.”
Hours later, the White House capitulated, saying the president “welcomes the opportunity” to address lawmakers next Thursday.
The exchange underscored the heightened distrust between Obama and Republicans as both sides eye next year’s elections, and it again raised the question facing Obama as he prepares his speech — whether to propose measures that can actually pass the GOP-led House, or to heed the desire of many in his liberal base to propose an ambitious jobs plan designed to pressure Republicans.
In the nine months since tea party Republicans prevailed in the 2010 midterms by railing against the ever-expanding government debt, Obama and his aides have embraced the goal of deficit reduction — a shift that White House strategists believed would put the president in good stead with crucial independent voters.
But since January, Obama’s job-approval ratings have sunk to new lows, now hovering around 40 percent in most surveys.
A series of disappointing monthly jobs reports and wild fluctuations in the stock markets have increased public anxiety and raised concern among economists that the country may be close to another recession.
Analysts expect the August jobs report, due Friday, to show modest growth but not enough to substantially change the country’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
“In the last couple of weeks, the White House has recognized the gravity of the moment for the economy and the public’s judgments of Washington itself, and has shifted quickly from deficits to jobs and growth, which is what the public is most anxious about,” said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer of the liberal Center for American Progress and a former policy adviser to the Obama administration.
Recent surveys have shown the extent of the political problem for Obama, with independent voters who backed the president in 2008 expressing growing disapproval of his handling of the economy. Moreover, vast majorities of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction and disagree with Washington’s priorities.
White House officials are still finalizing the jobs plan. It was not clear Wednesday how far Obama would go in terms of cost, or whether he would set out specific goals for how many jobs to create. Officials said the president would use a later forum to propose additional deficit reduction ideas to the bipartisan “super committee” created by the recent debt-ceiling deal.
But in requesting the joint session, thereby commanding network television time and implicitly asking millions of Americans to watch, the pressure will be on Obama to match the moment with a set of powerful, new proposals to drive public opinion to his side.
“If he is focused in that majestic House chamber on building a consensus in Washington, or if he speaks in partisan terms, then he’s misstepping,” said Ken Duberstein, who was chief of staff in the Reagan White House. “Because what he needs to focus on is building a consensus in America on behalf of the path that he lays out.”
Obama, in his letter to congressional leaders, cited “unprecedented economic challenges” facing the country as he invoked images from his campaign-style swing through the Midwest this summer.
“As I have traveled across our country this summer and spoken with our fellow Americans, I have heard a consistent message: Washington needs to put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties in order to grow the economy and create jobs,” he wrote.
He said he would reveal a “series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the Middle Class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order.”
Obama took criticism from his supporters who thought he caved too quickly to Republican demands during the debt debate. Since then, the president has appeared willing to answer calls that he recalibrate his strategy and get bolder with his rivals on his plans to create jobs and boost the economy.
In a series of recent speeches, Obama has attempted to frame the debate as one that casts him against obstinate Republicans who are blocking his agenda on political grounds because they are unwilling “to put country ahead of party.”
“We’ve got to break the gridlock in Washington that’s been preventing us from taking the action we need to get this country moving,” Obama told 6,000 American Legion veterans at a convention in Minneapolis this week, pledging to create 100,000 new jobs for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House appears poised to devote much of next week — as Americans and Congress return to their routines after vacation — to showing its renewed focus on jobs.
The president, for example, is scheduled to speak to labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, on Monday at a Labor Day parade in Detroit. Some high-profile labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, have been critical of Obama for not doing enough on jobs.
Trumka, along with U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern, joined Obama on Wednesday at the White House when the president made an appearance in the Rose Garden to call on Congress to approve an extension to a highway funding bill. Obama said that if the bill expires at the end of September, 4,000 workers would immediately be furloughed and 1 million could be out of work over the coming year.
“All of them would be out of a job just because of politics in Washington,” Obama said. “It’s just not acceptable. It’s inexcusable to put more jobs at risk in an industry that is one of the hardest hit over last decade. It’s inexcusable to cut off new investments at a time when our highways are choked with congestion.”
Trumka has said many labor unions are pulling away from their longtime alignment with Democrats as they prepare for next year’s elections. He said the AFL-CIO intends to keep pressuring Obama on jobs.
“This is the time for boldness,” Trumka said. “This is a moment upon which working people will judge all our of leaders.”