Speaking on primetime TV from the I Killed Osama Bin Laden Memorial Hallway, President Barack Obama attempted to swing people power to his side in the debt-ceiling debate, using the trappings of the office and an appeal to America’s sense of compromise. Assuming it still has one.
Obama’s address was an unusually directly political speech by the standards of primetime Presidential Addresses. Rather than announcing information to the American people or commenting on a sudden news event, the speech sought to influence the actions of Congress, where Republicans have threatened to deny the government’s ability to pay its creditors unless they get cutbacks in Federal spending. So the networks gave response time to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who doubled down on his refusal to give Obama a “blank check.”
It’s always a tough job for a Congressional response, from any party, to compete with a Presidential statement on television. (After his response, Boehner was heard to remark, “I didn’t sign up for going mano-a-mano with the President of the United States.”) The staging is usually challenging at best, and Boehner was not helped by the cavern-like audio. Visually, Boehner stood apart with an electric-green tie, apparently selected on the theory of choosing neckwear at the opposite side of the color wheel from one’s face.
But it was not just in staging that the two speeches were different. Obama’s rhetorical strategy was aimed at the center; he argued for the fairness of pairing deep budget cuts with more tax revenues from the rich and corporations, in exchange for cuts in spending that his side doesn’t want. Americans, he said, voted in 2010 for a divided government, not a dysfunctional one. Boehner, on the other hand, seemed to be speaking directly to the Republican base, not just in his tone but in using shibboleths like “cut, cap and balance”–a reference to the plan to cut spending, cap future spending and pass a balanced-budget amendment, a phrase probably foreign to many lay viewers at home but dearly important to Tea Party voters.
If Boehner had one thing working for him in the duel, it was the framing implied by the fact that it was a duel. Like so many things today, the mere act of defining the debt-ceiling controversy has been politicized. Long-term debt is a problem; but the debt ceiling is a manufactured emergency, because the only reason we are in danger of defaulting is that Republicans in Congress have chosen (you could argue with very good reason, but still deliberately) to threaten default in order to force policy changes they want.
This is the actual circumstance we are in; but for anyone in the press to come out and say this, of course, is seen as “taking sides.” So we are hearing a lot of media commentary about how “both sides are playing politics” in a crisis that only one of them wanted and precipitated. (It is true that opposition party members have voted against debt-ceiling increases before—Barack Obama among them—to embarrass the party in power, but not in a situation where failing to raise the ceiling was an actual possibility.)
Regardless of framing and blaming, however, and whether you call it division or dysfunction, a political argument was definitely what we got last night. And the most novel aspect of it was Obama’s call to his audience to contact their congresspeople and urge them to compromise on the debt ceiling, as if he were a spokesman for an advocacy group or maybe Ryan Seacrest on American Idol. (You can’t complain about the result if you don’t call in!)
After the speech, some commentators, like David Gergen on CNN, suggested that it was too late in the process to make this kind of populist appeal. I doubt that: I suspect that the week before the debt-ceiling deadline, like the week before an election, is the only time that the 90% of Americans who are not political junkies are paying enough attention. My question is even more cynical: is popular sentiment going to do anything to sway members of Congress in today’s political environment, at any point? For starters, the process seems to be too far along, and the bargaining positions too heavily entrenched.
But the bigger political question is how much moderates and compromise-minded voters—the call-in equivalent of a Rally for Sanity?—matter in any decision anymore. My political layman’s guess is that the result is a lot of congresspeople’s phones and websites being overwhelmed by the marginalized opposition voters they spend the rest of the year happily ignoring in their heavily gerrymandered districts.
But who knows? If it works, the Presidential addresses of the future could have a very different ending: “Thank you, and God bless America. Standard text-messaging rates apply.”
*NOTE: The original version of this piece was titled: “Dial 1-800-CEILING: Obama, Boehner Duel in Primetime,” which was (I thought) an obviously tongue-in-cheek reference to Obama’s asking viewers to contact their representatives. Of course, I should know that on the Internet, there’s always someone who will take anything seriously–and that, apparently, any seven-letter word is like to be claimed as an actual toll-free number. Apologies for the misdirected calls to to Glenn Scheel of 1-800-CEILING–it’s a real number, I called it and Glenn was an admirably good sport about the thing. Here’s hoping he gets some business out of it. And do not call that number! Unless you want to buy a carbon soot air deflector!