Yesterday, President Obama announced that he would address a joint session of Congress regarding jobs and the economy on September 7—the same night, it turns out, as a Republican presidential debate. Exactly how it turned out is a matter of conjecture. Press secretary Jay Carney insisted that the date was not chosen to conflict with the debate, noting that there were going to be 20 of those things and that “one debate of many was no reason not to have a speech when we wanted to have it.” Still, I bet they have a big calendar in the White House, and Obama’s move seemed like a deliberate provocation. Fortunately for everyone, he was provoking John Boehner, which is like trying to get a fish to gasp. “As the majority leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, Sept. 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening,” Boehner wrote, asking the President to move the speech to September 8. Guess which date they compromised on!
As virtually every news outlet in America has noted, this news does not signal a transcendence of partisan bickering in American politics. Not even the White House claims that the scheduling conflict happened by accident—although the new date conflicts with the Saints-Packers NFL season opener, which probably was an accident. Putting aside the possibility that this is an elaborate plan by a powerful Bears fan to humiliate Green Bay, we should ask: what the fuck message are the leaders of our great nation trying to convey?
There is little doubt that it’s a message. Letters between Boehner and the White House were released to the press at the same time they were posted,* suggesting that they were for us as much as for anybody. Yesterday’s events were a performance, but what are we to take away from it? As the reactive party in this situation, Boehner’s objective is fairly clear: he wants to be the first House leader in history to refuse the President a joint session of Congress. It’s kind of stunning that he would do that, particularly for something as obviously partisan and subordinate as a Republican debate. The implication seems to be that congressional Republicans are less interested in engaging the President than in arguing over which one of them likes church and hard work the most.
Maybe that’s the message Obama was trying to send. If it is, he could not have picked a less flattering way to send it. The President is so clearly the antagonist in this interaction that I find it hard to believe he considered it a clever PR move. Sure, Boehner is a dick for making him move the speech, but Obama is a dick for making him make him. If you’re trying to convince people that all persons involved in the administration of the US government are dicks, first check the calendar. Is it 2011? If so, do nothing.
But the President is smart. He is, as reporters like to remind us, a poker player. Perhaps more relevant is that he is a former Harvard professor and Chicago politician, but whatever—the point is that he’s a real planner. Just as he had to know there was a Republican debate on September 8, he had to at least consider the possibility that Boehner would ask him to reschedule. As one of two similarly likely outcomes, this scenario had to be one the President considered advantageous. So why?
It’s possible that Obama thought we would all react to Boehner’s decision with disgust and finally realize that Republicans are the bad guys. If that’s the case, the country is hosed. Sad to think that during this time of massive failure on the part of our political class, even their manipulation underestimates us. I prefer to imagine a silver lining, however. The other possibility is that Obama has an amazing plan for jobs and the economy—one that is really exciting and clever, and specific and executable—and he wants to make sure he plays last. If he scheduled his speech before the debate, Republicans could spend an evening rebutting it. If he just announced a date, they could move their debate to shortly thereafter. The only way to really lock in last play is to schedule for the night of, then make them make him move.
You know what I like about this theory? It assumes that the President has a concrete plan—for the economy, not for the Republicans or for the election. The premise is that he’s up all night thinking of ways to fix the country, and after that ways to sell it. It assumes that our present politics is animated by ideas, not the other way around. As much as I like this particular theory, though, I must admit that these premises are also flaws.