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Obama's speech timing: Coincidence, cunning or crazy?

Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidates
US President Barack Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 25, 2011, left, and Republican presidential candidates during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate on August 11, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Getty Images

Updated: 10:20 PM ET

President Obama chose to request Sept. 7 at 8:00 PM ET as the time to address a joint session of Congress with his jobs proposal, which is precisely the same time for the GOP debate that has been scheduled for several weeks. It's difficult not to perceive the timing of Mr. Obama's speech as a transparent political move to mess with the GOP debate. 

"It can't be an accident that Obama scheduled this for the night of the GOP debate," Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics told Hotsheet. "So the obvious motive was to upstage them in the most dramatic way--a venue open only to a president, not his presidential rivals. As we have learned, opposition party members giving a formal response to a presidential speech are almost always outclassed."

The White House team must have considered the consequences of stomping on the GOP debate, and debated the following issue: 

"If we schedule the president's speech at the same time as the GOP debate, will there be any significant blowback--will we be perceived as sticking it to the Republicans, demonstrating that the partisan political rancor that nearly led to a U.S. debt default lives on in the White House, and is metastasizing following the summer recess?"

It appears that the discussion was more centered on what campaign advantages could be gained by forcing the GOP to find another time for its debate, rather than how the request might be perceived. But according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the timing is merely a coincidence. Messing with the GOP debate was not part of the reasoning.

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"There's one president, there's 20-some-odd debates," Carney said in his daily briefing. "The candidates might enjoy the prospect of responding to the president."

Carney added that NBC News and Politico are "welcome" to move the debate to another time. "If the sponsors so chose and the candidates so chose to adjust the timing of their debate so that it didn't conflict, that would be completely fine with us in the spirit of democracy," he said.

In the spirit of Washington gamesmanship, the Republican leaders countered Mr. Obama's request. In a letter to the president on Wednesday afternoon, Speaker of the House John Boehner citied a lack of sufficient time to prepare the chamber for his address.

"With the significant amount of time--typically more than three hours--that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House Chamber before receiving a President, it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks," Boehner wrote. "As such, on behalf of the bipartisan leadership and membership of both the House and Senate, I respectfully invite you to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8, 2011 in the House Chamber, at a time that works best for your schedule."

"No one in the Speaker's office - not the Speaker, not any staff - signed off on the date the White House announced today. Unfortunately we weren't even asked if that date worked for the House. Shortly before it arrived this morning, we were simply informed that a letter was coming. It's unfortunate the White House ignored decades - if not centuries - of the protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.

If the hosts of the debate--the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, NBC News and Politico--decide to move the debate until after Mr. Obama's speech, it could bring along a bigger audience, drafting off of Mr. Obama's nationally televised speech, but the GOP candidates could be compelled to focus on critiquing Mr. Obama's jobs proposals rather than differentiating themselves from each other.

The debate hosts issued a statement that debate will still take place on Sept. 7. Whether the time of the debate on Sept. 7 will change is not clear. "This turn of events offers a great opportunity for both the candidates and the audience of the debate," John F. Harris, POLITICO's editor-in-chief and co-moderator for the debate said. "It raises the profile of the whole evening and in many ways makes it the first general election debate of the 2012 cycle."

It also raises the profile of Washington's inability to work together, further justifying the low ratings that Congress and the president have received in the way they do their jobs in recent surveys. 

In the end, Mr. Obama decided not to mess with the GOP debate timing:

"Today, the President asked to address the Congress about the need for urgent action on the economic situation facing the American people as soon as Congress returned from recess. Both Houses will be back in session after their August recess on Wednesday, September 7th, so that was the date that was requested. We consulted with the Speaker about that date before the letter was released, but he determined Thursday would work better. The President is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy, so he welcomes the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8th and challenge our nation's leaders to start focusing 100% of their attention on doing whatever they can to help the American people."