More sniping in partisan spat over Obama’s jobs address

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If President Obama had hoped to curb partisanship and reboot his presidency by calling on lawmakers next week to help him create jobs and restore economic health, the project already is wildly off track.

An unexpected dust-up between the White House and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) about when the president could address a joint session of Congress touched off angry sniping and recriminations Thursday and raised fresh doubts about whether Obama can forge the political consensus he needs to jump-start the economy.

More important, perhaps, it raised questions about how Washington can help solve the nation’s myriad problems if it can’t even schedule a speech without sparking a clash between two branches of government.


By agreeing to Boehner’s request to postpone his jobs speech from Wednesday to 7 p.m. EDT Thursday, Obama may have placated Republicans who were furious that he threatened to eclipse the GOP presidential debate scheduled that night at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

But the high-stakes scheduling snafu has overshadowed Obama’s speech for now and suggests his aides badly misjudged the president’s bully pulpit, or misplayed their hand.

This wasn’t the start to the new political season Obama had envisioned. He had expressed hope that lawmakers would return from their summer recess scared straight by voters who are frustrated by political deadlock in Washington and eager to see a semblance of cooperation.

Instead, both sides took more potshots Thursday.

“They messed this up; that’s obvious,” a senior White House official said of Boehner’s office. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations, said Boehner didn’t object when the White House asked for a Wednesday speech. “We said we’re going to do it, and he said OK,” the official said.

Not so, insisted a Boehner aide. When William Daley, the White House chief of staff, called Boehner on Wednesday morning about the speech, “nothing the speaker said gave that impression” that he would meet the president’s request, the aide said.

Congressional Republicans expressed disbelief and some amusement at what they saw as a spectacular misstep.


“If he would have called and asked before he leaked the letter, he would have had a date and time and no one would have thought about it,” said a GOP Senate leadership aide, who had not been authorized to speak to reporters. “It’s not a Machiavellian plan on our part; we’re not that clever. But this was an unnecessary thing. This was an unforced error.”

Whoever is to blame, the episode is a distraction for a White House that is desperate to focus on jobs. Rather than discussing the best way to put people back to work, the White House is fending off questions about who messed up scheduling a speech.

“No one comes out of this looking particularly good,” said William Galston, a former policy advisor to President Clinton. “To the extent the American people are paying attention, it just adds to the general perception of a dysfunctional political system focused on partisan infighting rather than the nation’s problems.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, sought to dismiss the dispute. He told reporters that the scheduling “never came up” when he met with the president Thursday.

But the episode has angered some in the West Wing. The White House believes that there’s an insidious pattern at work. From the start of Obama’s presidency, officials say, congressional Republicans have embraced a deliberate strategy of gumming up the works and trying to persuade the public that the administration is incompetent.

In some ways, the Republican rebuff was predictable. The GOP has shown little inclination to defer to the president, even on routine matters. The time and place of budget negotiations have become melodramas, with Republicans complaining that the White House summons them through the media rather than proper invitations.


When they feel slighted, Republicans have been quick to reject an invitation. In July, when the White House floated the idea of debt ceiling talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Boehner quickly and publicly declined the offer.

As he ramps up his reelection campaign, Obama will argue that recalcitrant Republicans are chiefly to blame for the gridlock in Washington. He has little choice: Opinion polls show that Obama’s ratings are plummeting.

The current quarrel won’t help. Joint session speeches are normally arranged between the White House and congressional leaders in private before any announcement is made.

In this case, Daley and Boehner had a brief talk — and 90 minutes later, the White House sent out a message on Twitter that the president had requested a joint session of Congress.

Obama could have bypassed Congress entirely by giving the speech elsewhere. But aides said that they wanted a grand forum, and a joint session is the most magisterial stage in politics. It also guarantees a national television audience.

White House aides had discussed the venue for weeks, and the president agreed when he returned from vacation last weekend, the senior White House aide said.


White House officials knew that the TV network executives had misgivings about televising Obama’s prime time speech in July on the debt talks, delivered from the East Room. They had agreed reluctantly, worried that the address would be perceived as political.

None of the networks can ignore a presidential speech before Congress.

“It has almost universally been the case that a presidential joint session address is a must-carry,” said one network executive.

Matea Gold of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.