The Great Speech Kerfuffle Of 2011 Reveals The Weakness Of The Obama Presidency
How a six hour long dispute over scheduling demonstrates yet again that Barack Obama isn't up for the fight.
The dispute between the White House and Speaker Boehner over scheduling of a Presidential Address, which resolved itself last night when the White House essentially surrendered has been, inevitably, the topic of discussion among political pundits today. As usual, they’re all trying to decide who the winners and losers are. The real answer, of course, is that for the most part the American people don’t really care. To the extent the average American was even paying attention for the six hours yesterday over which this story erupted likely came to the same “pox on both their houses” that they did in the wake of the debt ceiling debate. The inability of two branches of government to agree on something as simple as a date for a speech is mostly an indication of just how juvenile American politics has become. Nonetheless, there are a few lessons that can be drawn from this bizarre incident.
Over at The Washington Post, for example, James Downie argues that the entire incident should cause Democrats grave concern:
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.
In fact, the entire scheduling of this speech calls the White House Communications Office into question. Next week is the week after Labor Day. For most of America, that means an end to summer and kids returning to school, with all the attending busyness that entails. Moreover, there were really only two days next week on which the speech could have been scheduled, Monday is out because it’s a holiday, neither House of Congress is in session on Tuesday, Wednesday is the GOP debate, and Thursday is the start of the NFL season (absent a national emergency, a Friday speech would be a waste of time for obvious reasons). It didn’t really matter if the White House picked Wednesday or Thursday for the speech. Wednesday would have been, and was, seen as a blatant political trick that was too clever by half, even James Carville said that the White House made a mistake in trying to steal the spotlight from the GOP Debate. Thursday isn’t much better though. They’ll be competing against a football game against the last two Super Bowl Champions, which in and of itself is likely to reduce the audience. There are rumors this morning that the White House may scheduled the speech for 7pm or 7:30 in order to not conflict with the game start time (although pre-game begins on NBC at 7:30pm that night and the opening game of the season is typically accompanied by musical performances and other events). If they do that, they will, as I noted in a comment to Steven Taylor’s post, reduce the audience even further:
The ideal time for these speeches is really 9pm (which is when the SOTU usually starts) or, in a pinch, 8pm in the East, because that gives time for people on the West Coast to get home to see the speech.
Now, they’ll either be competing with the NFL, or they’ll be giving a speech when most people on the West Coast and in the Mountain Time Zone are either still at work, or on their way home and when people in the Mid-West (Central Time Zone) are eating dinner, helping kids with homework, or getting ready for the football game.
All in all, this strikes me as something that was badly handled by the White House from the beginning.
More importantly, the incident reinforces the idea that has taken root in Washington that Barack Obama has become a weak President with the Republican takeover of the House. It started even before the GOP took formal control, when the President preemptively surrendered on the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Then it continued in April with the showdown over the FY 2011, and last month with the debt ceiling debate. In this particular case, the White House failed to recognize that they really weren’t holding any cards at all. Speaker Boehner controls access to the House Chamber and once he said the September 7th wouldn’t work, and cited valid security and scheduling issues as the reason, it was inevitable that the President would cave. Normally, these things are handled behind the scenes and a date agreed to. Why that didn’t happen here, and it clearly didn’t, is unclear. Whatever the reason, though, the very public rebuke and walkback by the White House is only going to serve to reinforce the general impression among Congressional Republicans that Barack Obama has no fight in him. Bill Clinton wouldn’t have let this happen, neither would Ronald Reagan have.
Joe Scarborough, who was a Congressman during the Republican showdowns with Clinton of the mid-1990s, put it best this morning, nobody fears the political consequences of defying this President:
I’d argue that this attitude exists even among Obama’s fellow Democrats, who seems to clearly recognize that the President simply cannot be counted on in a fight. I’d also argue that this is yet further evidence in support of the proposition that Barack Obama came into office lacking the experience and the skills necessary to survive in Washington. It’s not just the fact that he had no Executive experience, although that’s certainly part of it. As I’ve mentioned before, Obama built is political career in an environment where political compromise wasn’t really necessary, and where leadership wasn’t really something that a back bench legislator from Chicago had to demonstrate. He didn’t spend nearly enough time in the Senate to develop an understanding of how Washington really works. Then, he was elected to the most powerful office in the world. Is it any surprise that he’s not the reincarnation of Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan?
All of this leads Ruth Marcus to wonder what the point of Obama’s jobs speech is at this point:
The larger question, of course, is whether all this focus on the speech is a smart move by the White House. I have my doubts, in large part because I don’t think there’s some magic, previously unmentioned, enormously and immediately effective bullet for the president to unveil. Instead, there are a series of smallish-bore steps that could have marginally positive effects. In that circumstance, the greater the buildup, the bigger the letdown. The drum roll has been building for weeks. The majestic setting of a joint session of Congress further ups the political ante. For the country’s sake, not simply Obama’s, I hope the president has something to say that’s worth the wait — and the kerfuffle.
Perhaps we’ll be surprised, but the odds are that this speech won’t amount to much of anything. In that case, the President is just going to look weaker.