Late Wednesday morning, President Obama requested a joint session of Congress to roll out his big jobs bill. The catch was that the day he wanted to give the speech, September 7, just happened to coincide with when the Republicans were going to have a major televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. Obama pulled an ice-cold political move, upstaging his rivals for a legitimate purpose and putting them all in their place.
Rick Perry pulled the same move before the Iowa straw polls and the other candidates’ heads have been spinning ever since. Consider how ridiculous would the Republicans in Congress look refusing to have a joint session for the President to talk about jobs? Apparently not ridiculous enough because last evening after a stand-off that amounted to a few hours House Speaker John Boehner said no to Obama’s joint session request (the first time this has happened in presidential history) and asked Obama to move his speech to the 8th …. And that’s exactly what Obama did, to the vast disappointed of many a political observer.
I’ll Teach you How to Stunt
President Barack Obama’s penchant for depicting himself as the grown-up managing a House of petulant little children doesn’t always go over well with the public. If you’re going to play black daddy in this day and age, the public wants a little less Cliff Huxtable and a little more Bernie Mack. However Boehner’s smack-down of Obama’s move to upstage his rival’s debate is another example of Obama not holding his ground. Boehner and other Republican leaders called Obama’s request a political stunt. And Boehner was right, Obama was stuntin’ but more like 50 Cent than a politician.
Back in 2005, 50 Cent showed us all how to stunt. In slang that means to show off your power, your bling or your swag and make others take notice. And initially that’s what Obama was doing with his speech versus debate move, showing that he still runs this place and he can marshal all the forces of Congress at any time while the GOP debaters were just pretenders. From the extension of the unaffordable Bush tax cuts to the debt ceiling default, the Republicans have done a masterful job of running the Titanic into an iceberg and then saying, “Look at what the Captain let happen!”
The President has tried unsuccessfully to point the blame at them but the public isn’t listening, or at least 60% of them aren’t. But this was his chance to show some backbone. If the Republicans had refused to even listen to the introduction of a new jobs initiative speech just because of a primary debate, they’d have finally looked like the obstructionist brats Obama has been trying to paint them as being. His post-partisan mantra that Republicans are willing to place party over country at all times would’ve been cemented into the fabric of the next few month’s political debates. If you’re going to pick a fight, hold your ground — don’t start backpedalling after the first punch.
Instead He’d Rather Punt
Obama’s political stunt was a chance for him to really stunt but instead he took the easy route and decided to punt. Earlier this month, Cornell West accused Obama of “punting on first down” when it came to the debt negotiations, basically giving up on his plays the first time the other side shows any resistance. The President made the point throughout the debt fights that he didn’t want to “kick the can” down the road, but instead that he wanted to handle major business as soon as possible.
He should’ve taken his own advice. This recent speech flap, while it may seem small in the grand scheme of the long campaign, is another failure to capitalize on symbolic uses of power on the White House’s part. Imagine the powerful image of the President giving a speech to put the economy back on its feet to a House chamber with only Democrats as the GOP refuses to attend. This won’t harm them among their base, but the independent voters, who are disgusted with intransigence in Washington would never forget that image.
In one of the most poignant lyrics in “Stunt 101” 50 says:
“They say I’ve changed man, I’m getting paper, I’m flashy/They like me better when I’m fucked up and ashy”
His point is that you’re always going to get resistance when you attempt to stand up for yourself and usually that resistance is going to be pretty brutal. It seemed like with this move Obama was coming out of his vacation guns blazing and ready to take on the Republicans in Congress. He was, for at least a few hours, a “changed man.” And then he gave in. President Obama’s political enemies will always prefer him “fucked up and ashy” to the tune of a 40% approval rating and looking like every negotiation is going to leave him naked at the poker table.
By backing down so quickly on what could have been a powerful political stunt the President has not done himself irrevocable harm, but he didn’t do himself any favors either. One of these days he’s going to have to do something to bring the pain back to the Republicans, and the sooner he does the better for his chances in 2012.