Barack Obama had three weeks to plan his first move of the fall political season. When he announced it, that move appeared to be an aggressive one. And then it blew up in his face.
Midday on Wednesday, his aides announced that the President intended to give a joint address to Congress about the economy on Sept. 7 at 8 p.m., the same day and time that his Republican rivals planned to meet in California for a nationally televised debate. This sent three messages: first, he saw an advantage in being compared to the Republican presidential field, even at this early date. Second, he was not going to let the political calendar get in the way of his main task, which is to get the economy growing at a faster clip. And third, he was ready to start being more aggressive by dictating the schedule of the national conversation.
Officially, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Republican presidential debate did not factor into the decision. “It is coincidental,” he said. But at this level of presidential communications, coincidences don’t happen. Calculations are made. Costs and benefits are projected. And decisions are rendered.
So it is all the more striking that just hours after the White House announced its plan, Obama backed down.
Speaker John Boehner had raised objections to having the speech on Sept. 7, which would force Congress to convene several hours earlier than had been planned. Boehner suggested Sept. 8, when the National Football League had scheduled its season opener, one of the highest-rated televised events of the year, at 8:30 p.m.
The immediate response from Democrats was that Boehner was jostling for political advantage, in the same way that Obama appeared to have been jostling for political advantage. And some Democrats struck back fiercely. “After 239 days with no action to create jobs, Speaker Boehner and House Republicans have just given the American people the clearest — and most disgraceful — proof yet that their priority is playing politics instead,” said Representative Steve Israel, chair of the 2012 election effort for House Democrats. “Americans’ top priority is creating jobs and protecting Medicare, while Republicans’ top priority is playing political games.”
Obama, however, was not ready to fight this battle. He backed down. “We consulted with the Speaker about that date before the letter was released, but he determined Thursday [Sept. 8] would work better,” Carney said in a written statement, which, though true, concealed far more than it revealed. (In fact, White House aides never sought Boehner’s permission. They announced their intention. Then backed down when Boehner objected.)
At another point in Obama’s presidency, such a minor skirmish would not have mattered all that much. But this is, in fact, a key point in Obama’s presidency. As I explain in the Sept. 12 issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers, the White House is preparing a major shift in tone and substance in the hopes of reasserting Obama’s leadership abilities heading into the next election. Recent months, of course, have not been kind to the President’s polls, which have registered roughly 10-point declines in Obama’s reputation for being a “strong leader” and for being “able to get things done.”
As part of this strategy, on Wednesday morning, Obama held an event in the Rose Garden talking tough to Republicans about the consequences that will befall them if they insist on having their way in an ongoing dispute over highway funding. After night fell, he demonstrated his willingness to back down if Republicans bit back.
The problem this raises for Obama is real and immediate. He faces a perception problem, not just with Congress but with a growing share of the American people who think he is so eager to find compromise on key issues of national importance that he allows himself to be pushed around. Wednesday’s confusion will not help solve this problem.
On Wednesday night, White House aides made clear that they do not expect the President’s speech to cut into the first NFL game of the season, between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. The pregame show is set to begin on NBC and the NFL Network at 7:30 p.m., with game-time programming at 8:30 p.m. In 2010, the pregame show on NBC garnered 15 million viewers, and the game attracted more than 22 million. It is hard to see how Sept. 8 is anything but a worse time slot for the President. Even if he is able to start speaking at 8 p.m., when more people are around the television, the talk the following morning for much of his target audience will be about football, not politics.
And so the President’s team must now look for another opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to go on offense. As it happened on Wednesday, the bungled scheduling undercut its central message.