Obama asks for prime-time joint session of Congress for jobs speech

Earlier today, Barack Obama chose the venue to announce his long-awaited jobs plan — a joint session of Congress in prime time.  However, at least one network might have a problem providing Obama coverage:

President Barack Obama sent a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid requesting a Joint Session of Congress on September 7th at 8pm to present his economic growth plan to the nation.

Obama writes that it is his intention “to lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the Middle Class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order.”

Obama’s announcement conflicts with a long-scheduled debate between the Republican presidential candidates at the Reagan Library sponsored by NBC and POLITICO.

Just to remind everyone, that debate has been planned for months.  It will take place at the Reagan Library at the exact same time as Obama has requested.  It’s too late for candidates to rearrange their schedules, but it’s perhaps possible for the debate to take place later in the evening.  Even so, Howard Kurtz took to Twitter to wonder what the White House was thinking:

Wouldn’t it have been better for Obama to have night to himself for jobs speech, rather than being followed by GOP debate? Shares news cycle

Maybe Obama and his team figured that an address to Congress would outshine the debate in media coverage, but that would only be true if Obama actually has a significantly new plan — or indeed, any plan.  The last time Obama asked for a joint session was during the ObamaCare debate, where the White House suggested through friendly media leaks that Obama would have something new to add to the debate.  All he accomplished was to ramp up the partisan vitriol without presenting any new ideas at all.

Joint-session presidential speeches are usually reserved for either State of the Union addresses (and for a SOTU substitute for newly-installed Presidents, usually called “budget messages”), inaugurations, or for heavily-weighted moments.  Both Obama and Bill Clinton gave health-care reform addresses to joint sessions.  Otherwise, most of the historic use of joint sessions have to do with war, either their start or their finish.  George W. Bush used it only once outside of the SOTU/budget message paradigm, and that was to address the nation after the 9/11 attacks and declare a War on Terror.   Reagan gave one on the Geneva Summit in 1985, certainly a heavily-weighted moment in the Cold War.

By putting his jobs speech into the context of historical presidential addresses, Obama is setting a high bar on expectations for his new plan.  If all he delivers is the same speeded-up infrastructure spending, gimmicky tax breaks, and social-engineering subsidies for Democratic hobby-horse industries, then he’s risking a spectacular failure — and even more questions about his political and economic competence.

Update: William Jacobson tells Beohner to reject the request:

I assume that protocol is that a President gets to give a speech to a Joint Session of Congress whenever he wants, but this is abusive and purely political.

Just say No.

That may sound satisfying, but a rejection will put Boehner on the spot to explain himself.  I doubt that there has been a precedent of a Speaker refusing a joint-session request, and I also doubt one will start now.

Besides, this actually plays well for Republicans.  Usually, the opposition party gets a few minutes for a rebuttal speech, shot in an anteroom with none of the drama and flair of a joint session speech.  Instead, the GOP will have eight or nine responses to Obama on live television in a dramatic setting.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Republicans at the debate decide individually to focus their criticisms on Obama all night long and his plan, especially if — as I suspect — the plan will amount to a junior-grade Porkulus.

At the same time, it’s going to be obvious to everyone that the White House manipulated this for his re-election efforts, which will further reduce Obama’s credibility and the credibility of his proposal.  And the first rule of political campaigning is not to get in the way of your opponent when he’s busy shooting himself in the foot.