Obama speech: Why was the timing so complicated?

The Obama speech, on his long-awaited jobs plan, will take place before a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Sept. 8 – before the NFL kickoff, the White House says.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
White House spokesman Jay Carney responds to questions about the flap over the timing of President Obama's address to Congress next week, during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 1.

Never in the history of the republic has Washington looked so foolish. OK, maybe that’s a bit over the top, but certainly, the kerfuffle over the timing of President Obama’s big speech on jobs to a joint session of Congress has twisted the capital in knots in a way that is downright baffling.

White House spokesman Jay Carney spent nearly his entire briefing Thursday fielding questions on the Obama speech. He called the timing flap a “sideshow,” “irrelevant,” “small stuff.” The president will deliver the speech next Thursday evening, and he’s fine with that, Mr. Carney said.

Then he made a crucial point: “I can assure you that, for all you football fans, he will be completed before kickoff between the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.”

Next Thursday night, it so happens, is the opening game of the 2011 National Football League season – in some households, almost a national holiday.

Just to back up a bit, the White House announced Wednesday that Mr. Obama would lay out his long-awaited jobs plan in a speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Sept. 7, starting at 8 p.m. It just so happens that, at the exact same moment, the Republican presidential candidates will begin their next debate. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be taking part for the first time.

House Speaker John Boehner came back with, in effect, “not so fast, that conflicts with official business.” The White House said, OK then, the speech will be next Thursday night.

Americans who don’t follow inside-the-Beltway minutiae – ie., most people – may be wondering why the speech has to be next week and not the week after. Or why he can’t give the speech on Tuesday, a perfectly respectable time for a presidential address.

Here’s how the logic works: Obama wants to give his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress, like the annual State of the Union address, because it conveys big importance. Plus, he will get applause, at least from Democrats. His speeches from the Oval Office, delivered without an audience, have not been all that effective. And giving it to an audience out in the country somewhere makes it seem less important than one delivered to Congress.

Also, as Carney explained, Congress is an important audience for the speech, because some elements of Obama’s plan will need congressional approval.

So why next week? Monday is Labor Day, effectively if not officially the end of summer, and a sign that it’s time to get down to business. Next Wednesday is the first day both houses of Congress are back in session, and so the White House felt that was the best day.

But oops, there’s that GOP debate. Thursday has its football issue. Why not Friday, some suggested? Nope. You never get a presidential address on a Friday, unless there’s an emergency or urgent announcement. The following week is also not great, because then you’ve missed that sense of a new beginning when Congress returns from its summer break.

So Thursday, Sept. 8, it is, at 7 p.m.

Here’s the real question: How can Obama and Congress expect to get anything done of real significance if they have such a hard time even agreeing on when to have the speech?

Carney fielded that question and was dismissive.

“The sideshows don't matter,” he said. “The economy matters. The American people matter. Jobs matter. And that's what we're focused on. That's why – you know, if Thursday's the day, Thursday's the day. We want to give the speech. The president wants to talk to the American people. The president wants to call on Congress to act. That's what we're going to do.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.