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Dispute over timing of speech on jobs overshadows Obama’s message

WASHINGTON ó If President Barack Obama had hoped to curb partisanship and reboot his presidency by calling on lawmakers next week to help him create jobs and restore economic health, the project already is wildly off track. |By Peter Nicholas and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON ó If President Barack Obama had hoped to curb partisanship and reboot his presidency by calling on lawmakers next week to help him create jobs and restore economic health, the project already is wildly off track.

An unexpected dispute between the White House and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, about when the president could address a joint session of Congress touched off angry sniping and recriminations Thursday, and raised doubt over whether Obama can forge the political consensus he needs to jump-start the economy.

More importantly, perhaps, it raised questions about how Washington can help solve the nation’s myriad problems if it can’t even schedule a speech without sparking a clash between two branches of government.

By agreeing to Boehner’s request to postpone his jobs speech from Wednesday to 7 p.m. Thursday, Obama may have placated Republicans who were furious that he threatened to eclipse the debate by GOP presidential candidates scheduled that night at the Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.

But the scheduling dispute has overshadowed Obama speech for now, and suggests that his aides badly misjudged the president’s bully pulpit, or misplayed their hand.

This wasn’t the start to the new political season Obama had envisioned. He had voiced hope that lawmakers would return from their summer recess scared straight by voters who are frustrated by political deadlock in Washington and eager to see a semblance of cooperation.

Instead, both sides took more potshots on Thursday.

“They messed this up; that’s obvious,” a senior White House official said of Boehner’s office. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations, said Boehner didn’t object when the White House asked for a Wednesday speech. “We said we’re going to do it, and he said OK.”

Not so, a Boehner aide said. When William Daley, the White House chief of staff, called Boehner on Wednesday morning about the speech, “nothing the speaker said gave that impression” that he would meet the president’s request, the aide said.

Congressional Republicans expressed disbelief and some amusement at what they saw as a spectacular misstep.

“If he would have called and asked before he leaked the letter he would have had a date and time and no one would have thought about it,” said a GOP Senate leadership aide, who had not been authorized to speak to reporters. “It’s not a Machiavellian plan on our part, we’re not that clever. But this was an unnecessary thing, this was an unforced error.”

Whoever is to blame, the episode is a distraction for a White House that is desperate to focus on jobs. Rather than discussing the best way to put people back to work, the White House is fending off questions about who messed up scheduling a speech.
“No one comes out of this looking particularly good,” said William Galston, who was policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “To the extent the American people are paying attention, it just adds to the general perception of a dysfunctional political system focused on partisan infighting rather than the nation’s problems.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, sought to dismiss the dispute. He said the scheduling “never came up” when he met with the president Thursday.

But the episode has angered some in the West Wing. The White House believes that there’s an insidious pattern at work. From the start of Obama’s presidency, officials say, congressional Republicans have embraced a deliberate strategy of gumming up the works and persuading the public that the administration is incompetent.

In some ways, the Republican rebuff was predictable. The GOP has shown little inclination to defer to the president, even on routine matters. The time and place of budget negotiations have become melodramas, with Republican complaining that the White House summons them through the media rather than proper invitations.

When they feel slighted, Republicans have been quick to reject invitationa. In July, when the White House floated the idea of debt-ceiling talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Boehner quickly and publicly declined the offer.|

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