WASHINGTON — The tiff over the timing of President Barack Obama's jobs speech to Congress offers little hope that Republicans and the White House will now find common ground on how to reduce the nation's painfully high unemployment. In fact, some Democrats say it's time Obama stopped trying so hard to negotiate.
On matters large and small, Obama has yielded to House Speaker John Boehner in a string of concessions that have unnerved Democrats and emboldened Republicans. A chorus of Democratic voices is now demanding that the president abandon his attempts at being a compromiser and instead lay out an ideological vision that distinguishes him from Republicans and becomes a template for his re-election.
Obama had asked Congress to convene a joint session next Wednesday so he could announce his jobs agenda. Boehner objected, telling the president it would be better if he came the next night. Republicans were irritated that Obama wanted to speak at the same time Republican presidential candidates would be debating in California — and sharing TV time with him.
In the end, Obama accepted Boehner's invitation to speak at 7 p.m. EDT next Thursday, early enough to avoid yet another conflict — with the opening game of the National Football League season.
Obama must create a clear contrast between what he wants and what the Republicans want, Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal-leaning think tank NDN, wrote this week. "If the president is to win the election next year, he will have to first win the economic debate with the Republicans, something, to date, he has not done."
Democratic strategist James Carville was even sharper, decrying the spectacle of the president being forced to change the day of his address to a joint session of Congress after Boehner took issue with Obama's initial request.
"The last thing that the White House needed was to appear to cave in to the speaker, and that's what happened," he said Thursday on ABC.
The pointed advice comes as Democrats are becoming increasingly anxious that joblessness and a weak economy are defining Obama's presidency and imperiling his re-election. His attempts to compromise with Republicans, they argue, have resulted in policies that have hurt him and the economy.
The critique goes to the heart of what Obama advisers say is the president's inclination to propose policies that have a chance of being accomplished. It also challenges the White House strategy of portraying the president as a sensible and pragmatic leader who is as frustrated with the ways of Washington as the public.
White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated on Thursday that the president intends to offer proposals that "are reasonable and ... should receive bipartisan support."
That strategy, these Democrats say, has not helped the president set a course for the economy.
Last December, Obama won a temporary payroll tax cut for workers, but he had to give up, at least until the end of 2012, on his insistence that Bush-era tax cuts should no longer apply to the wealthy. Earlier this year he avoided a government shutdown by agreeing to Republican demands for budget cuts. And this summer he won an increase in the nation's debt ceiling but had to accede to more than a $1 trillion in spending reductions, with more to come.
"As the economy slows, fostering growth and rejecting austerity becomes an even greater imperative now," Rosenberg said in an interview. "His speech must reflect that. "
The contretemps over the date of Obama's speech added to the Democrats' dismay.
Some, like Carville, argued that the White House erred by seeking to schedule the address next Wednesday, at the same time as a Republican presidential debate. "I do think this is a really big debate, and I think the White House was out of bounds," Carville said.
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