One advantage of being president is that you can address the nation whenever or wherever you want. You can’t, however, always choose both when and where.
President Obama learned this lesson the hard way. In the president’s ideal world, he would be delivering his much-promoted address on unemployment tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern before a joint session of Congress. He won’t be.
At House Speaker John Boehner’s rather firm request, the president’s speech will wait until tomorrow night. Today is Congress’ first day back from its summer recess, and Boehner said the backlog of legislative business would keep the House busy until at least 6:30 in the evening. There would, he said, simply be no time for the security sweep necessary to prepare the chamber for the president’s arrival. In a letter to the Obama, Boehner wrote, “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.”
The fact is that the scheduling quarrel had less to do with logistical concerns than with television slots. Obama’s original plan would have put him on television at the same time as a Republican presidential primary debate. Boehner’s proposed time would have put the president in direct competition with the first game of the National Football League’s regular season, a significantly stronger opponent in the Nielsen ratings. The president opted, instead, to deliver his “prime-time” address at 7 p.m. Eastern time, which is 4 p.m. on the West Coast. That’s drive time, not prime time, but from the White House’s perspective it is still a lot more appealing than having the nation tune in only during football timeouts. The White House has promised that Obama will be off the air by the time the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints take the field.
Of course, no one actually told the president he couldn’t speak tonight. The White House has plenty of spaces where Obama could have given his address without having to consider the legislative calendar. But Obama insisted on making his remarks before Congress.
Maybe Obama simply likes the acoustics over on Capitol Hill better, but I’m guessing what he’s really after is the live studio audience of legislators. Speaking before Congress allows Obama to frame his biggest political quandary – the country’s economic woes – as something that is primarily Congress’s problem. Positioned before Congress, he can lay out grand plans while the television cameras get some good shots of stony-faced Republicans sitting in silence as their Democratic colleagues applaud.
The message for viewers at home will be that the president has great ideas but that Republicans legislators are too stubborn to allow those ideas to be realized.
Speaking from the White House signals that a president is ready and willing to act on his own and to accept responsibility for the results. Richard Nixon demonstrated these qualities when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office on August 15, 1971 to say that the economy was in serious trouble and that “The time [had] come for a new economic policy for the United States.” He was not afraid to speak on his own, from his own domain, while laying out his plan for recovery.
Obama will get his congressional stage tomorrow evening. His plan is expected to include an extension of a payroll tax holiday for workers, a possible expansion of that holiday to employers, and initiatives to stimulate construction. He signaled in a speech to union workers earlier this week that he will push for an extended, and possibly expanded, federal highway construction program and may also call for the establishment of a national infrastructure bank, modeled after the government-sponsored housing entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that are now in federal receivership. Given the president’s plummeting poll numbers, it appears that a concept’s previous failure is no obstacle to trying it again.
The Labor Department’s report on Friday that the nation added no jobs at all in August places extra pressure on Obama’s speech. He surely wants to do something constructive about the dismal unemployment picture, but he just as surely wants to deflect the blame if, as the administration itself now predicts, the jobless rate stays at sky-high levels until next year’s election. Members of Congress, and particularly congressional Republicans, are the president’s foil of choice. It is no surprise that House Republicans, while politely making their chamber available tomorrow, did not roll out the red carpet tonight.
So the president becomes tomorrow’s pre-game show. Go ahead and tune in. It’s going to be a long and interesting campaign, on and off the gridiron.