Pressure on Obama to make a splash on jobs

Republican PartyMedia IndustryJoe BidenBarack ObamaWhite HouseRonald ReaganJohn Boehner

After getting his Midwestern pre-campaign bus tour and summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard out of the way, President Barack Obama is getting back to business with a planned speech to Congress this week, unveiling a long-awaited plan to put America back to work. It's way more than time to do so.

Instead of demonstrating the fierce urgency of addressing the task, the president frittered away August by not calling Congress back in special session. In holding off, he stumbled into a ludicrous mini-melodrama with his personal Darth Vader, House Speaker John Boehner, over the date of his speech, again coming up on the short end.

His formal request to address both houses of Congress in the larger chamber Wednesday night, on the first day the legislature is back, was summarily rejected by Mr. Boehner. He cited the need to conduct routine opening business in the House that would hinder the necessary security sweep in advance of a presidential visit.

Like a host with plans to go bowling on the night requested, the speaker offered instead to have Mr. Obama drop by the next night. Mr. Obama benignly acquiesced, the White House saying he "welcomes the opportunity" to address Congress on Thursday night.

The whole song and dance, conveniently disclosed to the news media as the president's request went to Mr. Boehner, triggered yet another partisan squabble. Republicans immediately charged that Mr. Obama, with a nationally televised event, was attempting to upstage the same night's televised coming-out party of Gov. Rick Perry, debating the other 2012 Republican presidential contenders for the first time.

There was an era when a president of the United States told Congress he was going to address it on a matter of national importance, and that was that. Can anyone seriously imagine that if Democrat Lyndon Johnson or Republican Ronald Reagan had said he wanted to speak in the House chamber on a certain date, Congress under either party's control would tell him no, and when he could?

There no doubt will be high interest, among conservative voters particularly, in seeing how the late-arriving Mr. Perry finally compares and copes with the other GOP hopefuls in the first opportunity to size him up. But presidential debates among the Republicans this season have already begun, and there will be many more in the months ahead. A presidential address to Congress is supposed to be a very special event, taking precedence over any other political exercise.

All this hullabaloo serves only to put increased pressure on Mr. Obama, who has talked the talk about job creation for months now, to walk the walk, producing a different and more substantial action program to tackle the high and lingering unemployment rates across the country.

If he merely trots out the things he has already talked about — the unspecific package of a public-works infrastructure construction and repair bank and various tax incentives to business to resume rehiring — he will open himself to a new barrage of criticism. Nor can he afford, before the bipartisan joint session, to cast his appeal in the sharp partisan rhetoric against Republican obstruction in Congress that has marked much of his oratory since the debt-ceiling fiasco, widely read as a cave-in on his part.

The revised schedule for his address gives the Republican presidential candidates one tactical advantage in their next debate the night before Mr. Obama unveils his latest job-creation plans. They can continue their broad-brush attacks on his actions on jobs to date, generally perceived to be ineffective.

At the same time, the debating Republicans may for once focus more on Mr. Perry than on Mr. Obama. The Texan's rivals will have their first head-to-head opportunity to smoke him out on his controversial views on social and economic issues, and how he handles himself under hostile fire. Mr. Perry's rapid rise in the public-opinion polls has already shaken perceptions of the GOP presidential competition.

In all, Obama has a high enough hill to climb, as surveys show his approval ratings slipping, without this latest fiasco over the date of his speech to Congress. Fairly or not, it comes off as engaging with Mr. Boehner in petty politics, rather than as a prelude to a major presidential initiative on the desperate jobs front.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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