In case you missed it, the hullabaloo started Wednesday after the president sent a letter to Speaker Boehner, asking for a joint session of Congress to be held Sept. 7 at 8 p.m., the same time as a Republican presidential candidate debate. While the official line was that the move was purely “coincidental,” it was a hard one for many to swallow. It may be true that the president wanted to address Congress on the first day it was back in session, but it’s hard to believe the timing wasn’t also designed to help make Obama look presidential in front of every important figure in Washington while a motley crew of GOP candidates slugged it out on another channel.
In a saner world, there would be a simple solution to this conflict. President Obama’s speech would be at 8 p.m. eastern, and the Republican candidates could start their debate at 9. That, after all, is the best prime time slot there is—those on the East Coast are still awake enough to watch it, while those on the West have actually gotten home from work. It would also likely benefit the Republicans, giving his foes not only the chance to spend a couple of hours criticizing the president’s remarks, but also the last word of the night.
But our political world is not sane. Instead, John Boehner asked the president to move his speech to the next evening, “when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks,” his response said, noting that votes were scheduled until late and a “security sweep” of the chamber could take hours to complete. That’s nonsense, of course: Boehner controls the House’s schedule, and a Speaker rebuffing the president is unprecedented. Boehner doesn’t look so good after this, either.
Still, the president acquiesced, moving the speech to Thursday, September 8. The reaction from many in the chattering class was that Obama had caved to Republican demands—again. His advisers failed him. He tried to get a little cute, and it didn’t work.
Indeed, the president and his advisers took a gamble—risking not just whether Boehner would say yes, or whether voters might choose to tune in to the GOP debate instead. Rather, the political ploy made the president seem less like a leader at the very moment his administration was trying to make him look more like one. He should have gotten a formal agreement with Boehner before going public with the date (the White House says it ran the request by him). He should be encouraging independent voters to watch the GOP debate and form an opinion for themselves, rather than listen to the media. Many are likely to be turned off by the hard-right views sure to be on display at the debate.
And he should have been wise enough to choose Thursday night to start with. After all, it was probably always a better option for the president. He’ll be able to respond to ideas and policies brought up in the GOP debate the night before. Giving his speech on Thursday will still make for a sharp contrast between the squabbling voices on a stage the the previous evening and a single leader’s (potentially) bold and authoritative plans delivered before a joint session of Congress. And of course, he’ll get the last word.
In other words, sometimes it’s better to follow than lead. Just make sure you’re the one who decides where you stand in line.
More from On Leadership:
Paul O’Neill: Only the president can restart America’s engine
Bill George:Enough talk about jobs—where’s the action?
Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra
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