When you thought Washington couldn’t get any lower, now the two parties are squabbling over when the president can speak to Congress. The White House asked if President Obama could address a joint session on Sept. 7 at 8:00 p.m., the same night and time as the next Republican presidential debate. House Speaker John Boehner, citing scheduled votes that would make a security sweep before the president’s speech impossible, asked the White House to move the speech to Sept. 8. Should this even be a story at all? No, of course not, but the whole episode should still have Democrats concerned.
Of the two, Boehner is acting less dignified. Citing a cluttered House schedule when he controls said House schedule is ridiculous, and citing the logistics of security sweeps on top of that is even more so, especially when Boehner’s rejection of the president’s request is historically unprecedented. Frankly, though, his actions aren’t surprising, given his antics during the debt ceiling debate.
But I’m more disappointed with the White House, because this spat sums up so well the image problems that Obama has faced since the start of his term.
● If the White House has spent months working to appear above the partisan fray – as they insist they have – then pulling a blatantly partisan stunt like this torpedoes all of that PR work.
●Pretending the timing was a coincidence has backfired with the press and pundits. Did the White House really think, when it sent Jay Carney to his press briefing, that people would swallow his line that the timing was “coincidental”?
●In the aftermath of the announcement, the narrative of the afternoon on cable news ran in part that the White House had not cleared the date with the speaker, with some outlets suggesting that Boehner’s office had only been given 15 minutes notice. If true, the White House was disrespectful and should rightly be admonished.
● Since Boehner’s rejection, several outlets have now reported (and the White House is now insisting) that the speaker’s office “raised no objection or concern.” Yet if that is true, that’s scarcely better news for Obama, because that means his staff somehow let the opposite narrative in this “nuh-uh, ya-huh” debate get a multi-hour head start. Now they’re scrambling to correct the record. If only there’d been some kind of press conference where these details could have been mentioned.
If this was an attempt to make Republicans look unreasonable, then, in almost every conceivable way, it failed spectacularly. And scheduling the speech during the GOP debate, even if Boehner had immediately acceded, is the one way the White House could guarantee a) that fewer voters would be watching and that b) viewers and pundits would pay less attention to the speech’s content and more to the theatrics around it. In other words, it’s the easiest way to lessen the speech’s chances at success. If this is a preview of Obama’s re-election campaign, Democrats should be very worried.