Washington Freaks Out over a Petty, Day-Long Logistics Dispute

Obama will give a speech on a Thursday, not a Wednesday. This is a very big deal.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

President Obama wanted to give a jobs speech before Congress next Wednesday, but House Speaker John Boehner said next Thursday would work better. Obama didn't like the idea of Thursday at first, but relented. Why is a logistics problem like this a big deal?

It's sort of like watching a reality TV show about a strange subculture, like rich housewives or Jersey Shore vacationers or sorority girls. One of the joys of watching those shows comes when one person violates the strange little rules of the group--rules that are alien to the rest of us--and everyone totally freaks out over what looks like a minor misstep. On Real Housewives of New York, for example, it's against the rules to bring up a fight at a party. When one housewife does it, the rest freak out. Then they take refuge in the mantra: "This is not the time, nor the place."

Obama and Boehner both violated Washington norms yesterday. The White House says it alerted the House of Representatives to his speech request, and, as spokesman Jay Carney said on Morning Joe, "No objection was raised. The letter went up." But a Republican aide tells NBC News' First Read that Obama only gave Boehner 15 minutes before he went to the press. Politico's Mike Allen explains, "White House and Hill officials from several eras tell us these things are normally worked out privately between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue before either side goes public with a date." A Boehner staffer huffed to Politico's Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Allen, "It’s unfortunate the White House ignored decades -- if not centuries -- of the protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement.

But Democrats counter that it was Republicans who violated tradition. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton got the dates they wanted without a fuss; so did Obama in 2009. A Democratic staffer explained to Politico, "Yes, consultation always occurs, but the President always gets the date he wants." A Democratic strategist to the New York Post that Boehner's pushback was "incredibly disrespectful." Even so, members of Obama's own party were annoyed he broke another rule: giving them a heads up. A Senate Democratic aide told Politico it was "pure Obama -- keeping us in the dark until the last minute."

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argue that Obama was smart to capitulate to Boehner's demands--this way, he'll get the last word, instead of giving it to Republican presidential candidates. If he hadn't, the press would have focused on the partisan fight, not the content of the speech, they say. Plus, Obama gives his best speeches in big settings like before Congress. Hot Air's Allahpundit says Obama "was trying to bait Boehner or some other prominent Republican into getting angry so that he could point to it and run through his tired 'adult in the room' shtick," but that Boehner's logistical excuse denied him that opportunity. Nevertheless Obama emailed his supporters playing exactly that role: "Today I asked for a joint session of Congress where I will lay out a clear plan to get Americans back to work. ... It's been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on. I know that you're frustrated by that. I am, too."

The media was left trying to convince readers that the speech fight was really interesting and really important. The Hill's Sam Youngman called it "a likely foreshadowing of a contentious work session to come." The New York TimesHelene Cooper and Jackie Calmes pepper their blow-by-blow with phrases like "In a surreal volley of letters..." and "In an extraordinary turn..." and "For several hours, the day turned into a very public game of chicken." Whole hours of chicken. Too bad no one flipped a table.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.