Thursday, September 1, 2011
August has been a month of devastating disapproval for both the Obama White House and the gridlocked Congress.
Poll after poll has highlighted the president's declining popularity — approval ratings around 40%, the lowest of his presidency — yet noted with appropriate amazement that the Congress' numbers are less than half as good.
The sheer lack of coordination between the parties and branches of government was a salient argument in the decision by the S&P rating agency to downgrade U.S. creditworthiness.
And a host of observers and commentators at home and abroad have suggested the dysfunction laid bare in the debt ceiling debate this summer was threatening the fragile economic recovery and straining the very fabric of American democracy.
So how have the White House and Congress responded? With a display of peevish political gamesmanship that would be comical if the nation's mood were not so ugly.
On the last day of this angst-ridden August, the White House proposed a presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, long expected to happen next week. But the time chosen was 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7, the precise moment when MSNBC was planning to air a debate among the Republican candidates for president from the Ronald Reagan Library in California.
The White House called the timing coincidental. Republicans cried foul. And House Speaker John Boehner said the proposed time was too close to the House's official start of its fall session at 6:30 p.m. that same evening to be practicable. Boehner suggested the next night.
The blogosphere caught fire. Republicans insisted the president was messing with their nomination process. Democrats urged the president to stand firm.
The White House said it had vetted the Wednesday night timing with the Speaker in advance. The Speaker's office denied it. The Speaker said he was prepared to offer the following night on behalf of the "bipartisan leadership" of Congress, even though all the Democratic leaders said they had heard nothing from Boehner.
And after a flurry of finger-pointing in and from all directions, the White House gave in and said the speech could be Thursday night after all. The White House looked whipped, and wailing from the president's partisans immediately filled the air.
But what else was the man to do, in the end, given the exposure created by the original White House gambit? Should he show up on Wednesday night to an empty House chamber? Give the speech someplace else? Go on for days kvetching about the unprecedented rebuff by the Speaker, the intransigence of the House Republicans and the sheer disrespect both imply?
The president could have done any of these things, but it would not have brought the government any closer to stimulating any additional economic growth or creating any jobs. And it probably would not have done him much good politically, either.
The truth is, for the partisans who are driving the process in Washington, improving the economy and creating jobs is less important than winning the elections of 2012.
But for a president, there is still a distinction between what serves political ends and what helps the country. He can choose one or the other, but he knows his decision will have real consequences. That sets him apart from all the people with access to the internet, and it sets him apart from leaders in Congress as well.
But why did the White House wade into this particular miasma in the first place? Was it coincidence that Wednesday night was the first debate to include the new GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry? Or was it a naked effort to upstage the opposition?
It might have been one or the other or even both. The first day next week when both House and Senate are back at work is Wednesday. The next night, Thursday, is far less appealing because it is the night the NFL kicks off its new season. Friday night? No president who wants an audience ever asks for a joint session on a Friday night, much less a weekend.
So if the president was going to talk to Congress in its first week back on the job, well, it looked like Wednesday night would have to be the night. That is, if the speech was going to get on TV and have an audience. If MSNBC wanted to schedule the debate an hour later, the Republican hopefuls could enjoy a two-hour rebuttal to the president's speech.
Everyone might have been happy, except that nothing was arranged before the White House made its announcement. And nothing could be arranged in the orgy of recrimination that followed.
For those who have been watching the summer unfold in the capital, it seemed all too plausible that everyone's version of this comical Rashomon had at least some truth in it — and a great deal of defensive self-interest.
We have seen before that Boehner negotiates deals he cannot get the House majority to accept. The more conservative elements of the GOP coalesce to defy him. In the past, some speakers have run the House majority. More often in recent years, the House majority runs the speaker.
And, just as sadly, we have seen the White House groping toward a grasp on the new majority culture in the House. The president's inner circle, apparently caught off guard by the debt ceiling crisis, still seems shocked at the eagerness with which House Republicans seized that moment and reordered the fiscal world in a matter of weeks.
In this episode, the Obama team's maladroit posture regarding Congress is as awkward as ever. Is it impossible to think the White House could actually find a conduit to the House that could provide reliable intelligence and, perhaps, a context for real negotiation?
And for their part, did the denizens of Capitol Hill get the message from the hustings in this summer of discontent?
It depends on which message you mean.
It appears they did not hear the voices calling for reason, civility, bipartisanship or whatever one wishes to call traditional compromise and consensus.
More likely, they listened to those in their respective power bases who told them to fight harder and never give an inch. Judging by the last day of this wretched month, that is the message from home that the warring tribes of Washington have taken to heart.