Of presidents and kings

Dr. James Joyner has a thoughtful essay this week on the proper role and treatment of presidents and other governmental figures. Titled “We Have a President, Not a King” he explores the reactions of the president, the public and members of congress during the recent food fight over Obama’s upcoming address to congress.

Despite the mythology that has been built up over the years, the president is not in charge of the Congress and the Speaker of the House owes him no deference whatsoever aside from the courtesy of calling him “Mr. President.” Boehner answers only to the constituents of Ohio’s 8th Congressional District and, as Speaker, to the House Republican Caucus.

Nor is the Speaker in any way obligated to jump through hoops to accommodate the president’s political schedule. An address to a Joint Session of Congress is a rare event, usually reserved for the annual State of the Union address and the occasional breaking emergency. Given a week’s notice and an obviously-politically-motivated ploy to hold the speech precisely when the Republican debate was long scheduled–not to mention only a few hours after Congress returns from a scheduled recess– it’s hardly unreasonable to insist the president push off a day.

Frankly, given that the incredible likelihood that there will be nothing new here, with the president using the Congress as a background prop for what amounts to a political stump speech, Boehner would have been well within his rights to decline the request altogether. The television networks have quite often made that decision in recent years.

The item that set Dr. Joyner off was a nearly inexplicable piece at MEDIAite by Tommy Christopher, where he somehow saw this event as reason enough to call on John Boehner to resign. (Joyner’s colleague, Doug Mataconis, wrote about it as well.)

This isn’t the first unprecedented Republican insult to the presidency under Barack Obama (but it is, by far, the worst), and it isn’t even the first time John Boehner has tried to make the President “heel” with his datebook. It ought to be the last. Every American who has an appropriate respect for the office of the presidency should demand that John Boehner resign, and every legislator should amplify that demand. The problems facing this country are too great to be left in the hands of someone with such contempt for its highest office.

By way of disclosure, I personally like Tommy. I’ve done some radio hits with him and have frequently enjoyed his acerbic sense of humor when it comes to the vagaries of American political life. (Which is frequently similar to my own.) But in this case, I honestly can’t fathom what he was thinking when he published that piece.

When the news came out about the presidential request for a joint congressional session and how it played out, it seemed to me that President Obama was really acting like a … jerk. (For a peek inside the publishing process, I went through roughly a half dozen words there before settling on one which wouldn’t have had the management calling me out on the carpet.) I’m sorry to say, but there simply are no “coincidences” of this sort when you get to that level of the game. Sure… if I went and asked ten random workers at the local construction site when the next GOP debate was – assuming I could find ten people with jobs, that is – odds are that nine of them wouldn’t know. But for Barack Obama and his inner circle – a group engaged in a near panic level focus on trying to salvage the next election and finding out who they will face – the idea that they weren’t aware of the debate schedule is preposterous.

I will take a slightly different angle than James Joyner, though, and point out that respect is earned by giving it in return, not simply by assuming a seat in some particular chair. And this goes for the President in his dealings with the Speaker as well. I see no other explanation for this than the likely proposition that Obama was simply trying to grandstand. If he could step on the GOP debate with some “historic” address to the Congress, he could demonstrate his Alpha Dog status by making them defer. And by immediately backing down as soon as Boehner sent a polite letter citing logistical reasons for pushing it back 24 hours, the effort blew up in his face. The only real question for me was, if he didn’t have a back-up plan in the event the Speaker demurred, why try this stunt at all?

But even for all that, I wasn’t about to suggest that the President resign over it. If we got rid of every politician in Washington who acted like a jerk the place would have a population roughly matching that of Chernobyl today. Calling for Boehner to step down over this was more than a little bit of hyperbole even if you think Boehner was wrong. And in this case, he wasn’t.