Welcome to prime time, Speaker Boehner.
On Monday evening, President Obama and his negotiating-partner-turned-antagonist John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) interrupted shows such as “The Bachelorette” for back-to-back speeches about the debt-limit crisis.
For Obama, it was practically a regularly scheduled program.
For Boehner, it was a pilot episode.
“Good evening. I’m John Boehner,” the congressman, a far less familiar face with a tricky-to-pronounce name, introduced himself from a ceremonial office on Capitol Hill. “I serve as speaker of the whole House.”
In his debut, Boehner sped through many of his remarks — understandable given that his primary audience had heard it all before. During the long debt debate, Boehner has communicated with his freshman and tea party members through appearances on Fox News and daytime political-chat shows. The members and the Republican base that elected them have proved skeptical, to put it mildly, of any of Boehner’s efforts to compromise with Obama. On Monday night, both leaders addressed the caucus, but also the vast numbers of TV-watching constituents who elected them.
In Obama’s 15-minute speech, he explained the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling and characterized the House Republicans as unreasonable for rejecting a “balanced” approach with higher taxes for the rich. He then urged “ordinary Americans” to “make your voice heard.” He argued that compromise should not be “a dirty word” and that Americans should not be “collateral damage” to a partisan stalemate.
Boehner had requested airtime from the networks to reply to Obama and became something like a new program strategically scheduled to follow a proven hit. He used his seven-minute performance, rife with one-liners such as “I’ve always believed, the bigger government, the smaller the people,” to assure his caucus that his days of compromising in search of a grand bargain were through.
“I want you to know I made a sincere effort to work with the president to identify a path forward,” he said, adding that he pushed for principles consistent with an all-cuts measure favored by the tea party movement. “I gave it my all.”
White House officials said that the use of the presidential bully pulpit makes sense because Americans are “sick of” the stalemates in Washington and that Republicans are mostly to blame. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 77 percent of respondents said Republicans are not willing to compromise enough on a debt-ceiling deal, while 58 percent said the same of Obama.
It was not surprising then that the pre-speech spin coming out of the White House featured such poll-friendly lines as “President Obama, like Democratic and Republican presidents before him,” and “With eight days until deadline, compromise is the only reasonable path ahead to keep our economy strong and growing.”
In the late afternoon, the Obama administration worked to build viewership and hammered that theme on Twitter, with Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, saying that the president would make a prime-time address about the “stalemate over avoiding default and the best approach to cutting deficits.”
Stylistically, Obama had rehearsed several different deliveries for that message before assuming the eminently-reasonable-man tone of Monday night. After staying out of the negotiations for months, he had descended into the fray as the disappointed adult, reminding Congress that it was time to “eat our peas.” Then, Friday night, after Boehner withdrew and tanked the grand deficit-cutting bargain the two leaders had worked on together, a visibly fuming Obama talked about how he had been “left at the altar” by Boehner.
Boehner showed up Monday afternoon, but no longer as a partner. Speaking from Congress in front of a silent chorus of a dozen stony-faced Republicans, Boehner explained that he would raise the federal debt by $1 trillion and tie a subsequent increase next year to Congress’s ability to cut more of the deficit. He called it his “two-step” plan.
Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said that Monday night’s speech was the Republican leader’s first foray into prime time but suggested in an e-mail that Boehner was well prepared, given his weekly remarks to reporters at the congressional “stakeout.” (See the C-SPAN Video Library for examples.)
Boehner concluded his debut with a message shaped to be palatable to both his caucus and the wider “Bachelorette” viewership: Republicans are open to compromise, but on their terms. “We are up to the task,” he said, “and I hope President Obama will join us in this work.”