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Understanding the Obama-Boehner speech mess

A White House source says John Boehner was “passive aggressive” regarding scheduling. | Charles Dharapak~AP

A White House source says John Boehner was “passive aggressive” regarding the scheduling. | Charles Dharapak~AP

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Updated: November 5, 2011 1:11PM

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s team and House Speaker John Boehner squabbled over the date of Obama’s upcoming address before a joint session of Congress which of course raises the question of how will lawmakers, back from a long summer break next week, get any of the big stuff done on jobs and the deficit.

Boehner and Obama’s staffers said that they would rather not dwell on the Wednesday miscommunications and want to move on. But it’s instructive to look at what happened. That’s because it shows how hard it is for opponents to work together in the partisan political climate.

White House Communications chief Dan Pfeiffer and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney used identical language Thursday on MSNBC shows discussing the mess.

“They raised no objections to the date or time,” Pfeiffer told Chuck Todd.

“We contacted the speaker’s office, informed them that we were going to be asking for that day. No objection was raised at that time,” Carney said on “Morning Joe.”

Sometime near 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley phoned Boehner about an 8 p.m. Sept. 7 joint session, where Obama would unveil his newest jobs plan.

Of course, Obama could have made his jobs speech anywhere. His team picked the venue they thought would have the most impact — and with Congress as a backdrop, make it harder for the TV networks to refuse to carry the prime time speech.

Boehner and Daley, two pros, have cordial relations. After Daley was tapped by Obama to be his new chief of staff, replacing Rahm Emanuel, I am told Daley reached out to Boehner to have dinner. The two dined the third week of February at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse on 15th Street, not far from the White House.

From the White House perspective, the call was somewhat routine. No presidential request for a joint session had ever been turned down. At 11:55 a.m., Pfeiffer sent out a Twitter announcing the address.

Within a few hours, the Obama team had to retreat. Boehner nixed the date on logistics grounds. Other Republicans roared that the White House surely knew of the Sept. 7 GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

The GOP debate, however, was not the main issue.

From the Boehner team perspective:

Daley was telling, not asking, Boehner about Sept. 7. So Boehner listened. There was no yes or no on the call, I was told by a Boehner source. If Carney and Pfeiffer “believed they had an actual OK from the Speaker [in that call] they would be saying that,” and not use the wiggle words they did about “no objection” being raised.

From the Obama team perspective:

Boehner’s behavior was “passive aggressive,” a White House source told me. During the call, Boehner gave “no pushback” to Daley, letting him hang up without a signal that Boehner was not ready to approve the Sept. 7 date — for whatever reason. The assumption was that no Speaker would say no to a president, to do so was “disrespectful,” no matter what else was going on that evening or the logistical challenges the request would pose.

On Thursday night, Boehner issued a polite invitation for Obama to address Congress at 7 p.m. Sept. 8. Obama accepted, Carney said in a statement. This could be a lesson learned for both sides. Or a foreshadowing of more tough times ahead.

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