What should have been a simple matter of scheduling turned into a Washington political incident Wednesday. At issue: When and where would President Obama give a policy speech about jobs?
The date and place have been set. But before that, there was much drama in the nation's capital. All of the major players said the matter had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with logistics.
For the past couple of weeks, the White House has said the president would give a speech about jobs and the economy after Labor Day. And as far as presidential speech making goes, there's no bolder way to outline a policy than before a joint session of Congress.
The White House announced that Obama would address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. But House Speaker John Boehner sent the president a letter recommending that he pick a different night to give his speech.
"There's a kind of etiquette traditionally that says to leaders of Congress, it's a good thing to defer to the president," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. "He is the person elected by all of the people. And if he wants to speak at a particular time, he really should have that opportunity."
But this is Washington 2011. It's only been a month since a fight over the debt ceiling brought the nation to the brink of default. And it seems now nothing is simple.
In this case, Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders saying he'd like to address a joint session at 8 p.m. Sept. 7. That's the exact time Republican presidential hopefuls were set to hold a televised debate.
"Clearly he wants to steal the show from the GOP presidential candidates when this debate has been on the books for quite some time," says Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. "All this president does is campaign. It's pretty clear that it's all politics all the time."
White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted that the president's choice of Wednesday night had absolutely nothing to do with the GOP debate.
"This is about the president addressing the American economy," Carney said. "The need to grow the economy, the need to create jobs, this is the right time to do it, the right day to do it, given all the other considerations."
In his letter to the president suggesting Thursday night instead, Speaker Boehner didn't say anything about the GOP debate. He cited security logistics and matters of timing, since members of the House aren't scheduled to return from their August break until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
That response was also taken as a blatantly political move and set off a flurry of finger pointing and finger wagging on both sides.
While that stuff may matter to partisans, most Americans will just roll their eyes, says Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"Ordinary citizens will think, 'What's the big deal? Why don't you get the job done?' " Pitney says.
When it comes down to it, Pitney says neither the president nor Speaker Boehner come out of this looking good.
"This is a dispute between an unpopular president and an unpopular Congress," Pitney says. "It's very likely the result will be to make both sides more unpopular."
And professor Baker at Rutgers says it's a huge distraction from the issue Americans care about, and the subject of the president's speech: jobs.
"Certainly if the president wanted a more welcoming audience in the House chamber, I think this makes it somewhat less likely," Baker says. "The chances of his getting a friendly reception even without this particular disagreement wouldn't have been very good."
Late in the evening, the president agreed to give his speech Sept. 8. Instead of big-footing the GOP debate, Obama will have to go head to head with the start of the NFL season — a game between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints.
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