For the second time in a month, President Obama on Tuesday made a grand show of demanding that Congress pass legislation that was already guaranteed to be approved in hours or days.
In July, Obama blasted Republicans for opposing an extension of unemployment insurance, at a time when Senate Democrats and the White House both knew there were enough votes to pass it days later.
On Tuesday, it was a $26 billion package for state school systems to stave off teacher layoffs. A House Democratic aide confirmed to The Daily Caller that the legislation was sure to pass in an afternoon vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the House back into a special session for the vote.
But Obama appeared before the press anyway just before noon, standing next to two teachers, Shannon Lewis of West Virginia and Rachel Martin of Illinois.
“If we do nothing, these educators won’t be returning to the classroom this fall,” Obama said. “I urge members of both parties to come together and get this done.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was pressed in July on why Obama made a statement at the White House about the unemployment insurance when he knew it was certain to pass. An Associated Press reporter asked if the play-acting wasn’t “the kind of political theater, the back-and-forth that the President was elected to stop.”
Gibbs said at the time he was “hopeful that we have the votes” and said the statement was also intended to “ensure … that people are clear where the President is.”
But the repeat performances last month and again Tuesday represent a no-risk strategy for the White House, an attempt to pick the lowest-hanging fruit possible. The hope is that Americans who are only marginally paying attention to the news will see Obama’s statement and the passage of the aid for states and see the president’s actions as causal, when in fact it is merely a piece of play-acting.
One House Republican leadership aide dubbed the Obama strategy, “‘The Forrest Gump school of politics’: (ie standing near popular/important things that are happening without your help).”
Obama has not always played it so safe. He has shown himself willing to risk his name and political capital in the past. But in many cases he has been burned: witness his last-minute campaigning for Democratic candidates who lost in New Jersey last fall and in Massachusetts in January, as well as his embarrassing rejection by the International Olympic Committee when he flew to Copenhagen to personally lobby for Chicago’s quest for the 2016 games.
Yet the White House is heading into a fall midterm election cycle in as risk-averse a stance as possible. They have even looked panicky in recent weeks, when they made a lightning-speed decision to dismiss Department of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod over a video clip that purportedly showed her making racist comments, but which was later revealed to have been taken out of context.
Revealingly, Obama himself never commented publicly on the Sherrod flap, in a complete reversal of his handling of controversy around the arrest of a black university professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2009, when he made numerous public statements and even held a “beer summit” at the White House with the professor and the arresting officer.
And on Tuesday, the White House once again found themselves in damage control mode.
Comments by Gibbs decrying the “professional left” as perpetually unhappy with Obama and unreasonably demanding — ““I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said — prompted an outcry on the web among liberals.
Less than an hour before Gibbs was scheduled to brief the press, the White House announced that deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton would be taking Gibbs’ place at the podium.
Gibbs issued a statement admitting that his comments were “inartful” and that he has grown frustrated by watching “too much cable.”
“Day after day it gets frustrating,” Gibbs said (read the full statement here).
But he added, speaking to the president’s liberal base: “We should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences on certain policies, and instead work together to make sure everyone knows what is at stake because we’ve come too far to turn back now.”