After delivering a response to President Obama’s address on the debt-ceiling crisis, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was overheard saying, “I didn’t sign up for going mano-a-mano with the president of the United States.” CBS News added, “His remark was dry in tone, and it was followed by silence as walked down the marble stairs and left the Capitol.”
Whether Boehner signed up for this or not, the crisis the Speaker and his caucus created have led us to this point. The question now is whether the national addresses made any difference.
When I was taking notes during the president’s remarks, I noticed that he barely laid a glove on Republicans who no doubt deserve some rhetorical jabs. But it occurred to me later that this was intentional — Obama’s intended audience was the center, and his goal was to look like The Last Grown-Up in Washington.
To this extent, the speech was a success. Obama positioned himself as the one eager to take popular, responsible steps, struggling with a radicalized GOP that refuses to listen to reason.
David Gergen told CNN viewers the president’s speech was “partisan.” That’s demonstrably ridiculous — Obama told Americans that “neither party is blameless”; he emphasized the similarity between his agenda and Reagan’s; and he spoke at length about the necessity and virtue of “compromise.” As E.J. Dionne Jr. put it, “President Obama made clear tonight that the debate over the debt ceiling is not left vs. right. It’s center vs. right. There was nothing remotely ‘left’ in this speech, unless you count higher taxes for corporate jet owners and a few other populist bits.”
Perhaps the most notable part of the speech was the president urging the public to actually do something about their frustrations.
“The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government. So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.”
It was, as best as I can recall, the first time Obama has made this sort of call to action in a national speech. The preliminary reports are encouraging: the public responded last night, crashing congressional web servers and phone lines.
For the most hard-line conservatives, public pressure is irrelevant. But for GOP members who are on the fence, and are perhaps worried about their re-election prospects in a competitive district, could a sudden flood of calls, letters, emails, and faxes move a few House votes? Absolutely.
But perhaps the most striking thing about last night wasn’t the president’s speech itself; it was the comparison between his remarks and the Speaker’s. Obama told Americans:
“I realize that a lot of the new members of Congress and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But we were each elected by some of the same Americans for some of the same reasons. Yes, many want government to start living within its means. And many are fed up with a system in which the deck seems stacked against middle-class Americans in favor of the wealthiest few. But do you know what people are fed up with most of all? They’re fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word.”
A few minutes later, Boehner, who isn’t even comfortable saying the word “compromise” out loud, proceeded to tell the public he doesn’t want to compromise. It was as if the Speaker was deliberately trying to prove the president right.
With this in mind, the two speeches helped capture the larger debate perfectly: one side is aiming for the middle, is willing to make concessions, and is eager to find a compromise. The other side is aiming for the right, sees no need for concessions, and defines “compromise” as “getting everything I want.”
Once the two addresses were complete, was there any evidence to suggest an agreement will come together over the next week? If there was, I didn’t see it.