President Obama agreed to address a joint session of Congress next Thursday, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the White House announced late Wednesday.
But Thursday was not Obama's first choice—he originally asked to address Congress on Wednesday night, Sept. 7. A month after they went toe-to-toe over the nation’s debt, Obama and Boehner slugged it out on Wednesday over the calendar and the president’s desire to give a speech to Congress.
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That night was supposed to belong to the Republicans. It was to be a showcase for the eight GOP contenders for president, a chance to use two hours of national television coverage of their debate in California to bash Obama. A chance to look presidential. But with only 198 words in a letter to the leaders of Congress, Obama reminded them who is president right now.
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But it took Boehner only another 268 words in his own letter later in the day to remind Obama that while he is president, he does not dictate the schedule of the House of Representatives. Boehner reclaimed Wednesday for the GOP, suggesting that Thursday was a better day for the commander in chief to come to the House chambers to give what the White House hopes will be the marching orders in the battle to revive a weak economy.
Noting that the House will not be in session on Wednesday until 6:30 p.m., Boehner argued there just isn’t enough time to have the president in as a guest at 8 p.m. “With the significant amount of time—typically more than three hours—that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House chamber before receiving a president,” wrote Boehner, “it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.”
Even as they acceded to Boehner's alternate date, the White House strongly disputed any suggestion by Republicans that they were blindsided by the president’s letter requesting Wednesday. “Boehner’s office was consulted about the 9/7 date before the letter was released,” said a White House official who asked not to be named. “No objection (or) concern was raised.”
The White House is acutely aware that by moving the speech to Sept. 8, they now find the president pitted against a ratings behemoth much tougher to overwhelm than any candidates’ debate—the kickoff of the NFL season, with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers taking on the New Orleans Saints at 8:30 p.m. EDT. The game will be broadcast on NBC. The White House indicated on Thursday that Obama's speech will end before the start of the game.
In deciding on the grandest possible venue to unveil Obama's jobs plan and in picking Sept. 7 even though it clashed with the Republican candidates’ debate in California, the White House was playing political hardball. But it is also ratcheting up the pressure to deliver a program that is more than just a rehash of past proposals and is bold enough to put the economy on a course more positive than today’s.
If Obama falls short on that measure, if his proposal looks timid or inadequate, he could regret seeking that large stage. But that will not be known until later. The immediate impact is on politics, and it assuredly leaves the eight challengers steaming and the debate sponsors miffed.
In his letter requesting the audience, the president placed his speech above politics. “Washington needs to put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties in order to grow the economy and create jobs. And we must answer this call,” he wrote. (Both chambers of Congress would have to approve such a session by passage of a joint resolution.)
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Obama promised to use the speech “to lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the middle class and [of] working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order.”
At the White House, officials professed to be shocked at any suggestion that they would intentionally step on the planned GOP debate. “Of course not,” insisted a wounded-looking press secretary Jay Carney at his daily briefing. Asked how 8 p.m. Wednesday was selected, he responded, “There were a lot of considerations. You have to deal with Congress’s schedule. This is one debate of many, that is on one channel of many. That was not enough reason not to have it.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was not buying the White House explanation, deriding the scheduling of the speech as “a thinly veiled political ploy.” In a statement, Priebus dismissed Carney’s contention that it was “a coincidence” that the speech will be when the debate was planned. “The American people can see right through that excuse,” he said.
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As to why the president would want to give the speech on Capitol Hill and not from the Oval Office, Carney said that the Capitol was appropriate given the high stakes for the country. “The president hopes that members of Congress, while they’ve been on their recess, have been hearing the same things he heard while on his bus tour and that they will come back with the same sense of urgency.”
Carney seemed to lump the Republican candidates in with animals and chefs when he noted a presidential speech always competes for viewers with other TV fare, such as “the Wildlife Channel or the Cooking Channel.”
He suggested that the debate could be shifted by one hour. It will be at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The fourth of this year’s debates, it will be the first to include Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The debate is cosponsored by the Ronald Reagan Foundation, Politico, and NBC News and is to be broadcast live by MSNBC.