President Obama has requested a joint session of Congress at 8 p.m. next Wednesday to lay out new jobs proposals aimed at boosting the economy.
That would be the same night as a scheduled debate in California among the 2012 Republican presidential candidates.
“It is coincidental. ... There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling a joint session of Congress for a speech,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney at a Wednesday press briefing. “You can never find a perfect time.”
Carney added: “There are many channels to watch the president and to watch the debate.”
Politico and NBC News, the debate sponsors, could very well push the debate back an hour, giving the GOP contenders in essence a rebuttal opportunity.
The White House gambit doesn’t make much sense. The president is already defending against claims that President Obama is too partisan and that the speech is not a serious policy statement. The gamesmanship on the debate timing only underscores that. The media aren’t buying the line that the scheduling conflict was unintentional, and much of the coverage will now cast the dueling speeches as conflicting political events. The president seems oblivious to the harm in systematically reducing the White House to the level of the DNC headquarters.
An experienced Republican communications guru e-mails me, “First, he has totally watered down a joint session of Congress [setting] by doing too many. His September 2009 speech [on health care] was when people realized just how partisan he can be. The sad thing is he won’t garner support for his proposals (unless they’re really bold and not repackaged proposals from before) because he’s making it a campaign event.”
It also gives the candidates in the GOP debate an easy target and an excuse to deflect (or postpone to later debates) inquiries about themselves. It also gives a boost to candidates who are quick on their feet and can respond off the cuff to the president. Matt McDonald, a former Bush official and now a communications consultant, tells me, “I think the White House is outsmarting themselves a bit with this. By scheduling it the night of the debate, they are almost begging the press to cover the night in a he-said/she-said fashion, which will necessarily dilute the president’s message.” He also is skeptical about the White House requesting a joint session of Congress: “It is also interesting that they asked for time with Congress. They really have raised the bar for a big proposal by doing that, and if it’s a laundry list of nice but forgettable proposals, voters may really feel that the president just wasn’t up to the moment.”
The Obama White House has a singular purpose now: reelection. There’s nothing wrong with or surprising about that. But in doing so it risks underscoring its own partisanship, alienating independents and giving Republicans an easy target.