Democrats cried foul when Republicans chose not to hold a televised response directly after President Obama’s joint-session speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco Democrat, said, “The Republicans’ refusal to respond to the president’s proposal on jobs is not only disrespectful to him, but to the American people.” This is a strange claim; it clearly would be more disrespectful to Joe Six-pack to hold up the Saints-Packers game, which is certain to attract more viewers.
Some presidential addresses can overshadow sporting events. Richard Nixon’s resignation speech temporarily halted nine major-league baseball games, two pro tennis matches and a contest in the World Football League. It would take an oration of great moment to force the delay of the opening game of the NFL season between the past two Super Bowl champions. Barack’s paean to government spending isn’t it.
The televised opposition response has been a staple of American politics since 1966 when Republican leaders Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan gave a response to President Johnson’s State of the Union address. The issue then was fairness; the Big Three television networks formed a practical oligarchy. There was no C-SPAN, no webcasts, no other practical way to reach out through mass media. The most the opposition could count on was a statement a few seconds long edited in a news report. The networks decided to give “equal time” to the opposition to squelch criticism that they were simply serving as presidential pawns.
Grants of “equal time” responses soon extended beyond the State of the Union to other speeches. In December 1967, Johnson lambasted Republicans in a speech at the seventh biennial AFL-CIO convention in Miami Beach, which was aired live by all three networks. The networks gave Dirksen and Ford response time. The new order didn’t sit well with everyone. In 1968, columnist Tom Wicker wrote that “equal time” provisions were themselves a sign of disrespect, contrary to what Mrs. Pelosi thinks. Mr. Wicker said the State of the Union address in particular was “an occasion symbolic of the presidency’s dual nature. It was at once the Chief of State’s accounting to the people of the condition of their affairs; and their political leader’s projection of his program for their future.” Mr. Obama’s speech this week is no State of the Union - and no serious person would mistake it as being anything other than politics in the raw.
These days, the public doesn’t need an immediate response to every single speech. None of them has been particularly memorable or contributed any great historical moments or drama. The most exciting response among recent speeches was Rep. Joe Wilson’s instant rebuttal - “You lie!” - shouted during Mr. Obama’s major health care speech two years ago. The truth hurt, so the South Carolina Republican apologized. The official response to that speech, from Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican, was brief, well-delivered, tightly reasoned and now forgotten.
There will be plenty of responses to this joint-session speech, official and unofficial, from politicians, commentators, reporters, bloggers, Facebookers, tweeters and anyone else with an opinion. The problem is not any lack of response but too much, given too quickly and lacking depth. The country has had enough of shoot-from-the-hip arguments based on instant analyses and canned talking points. Republican leaders wisely are choosing not play Mr. Obama’s game. He is a talker; they are the doers. If this new O Force jobs proposal is serious, it should be assessed seriously, and that will take time. If the lack of instant response diminishes Mr. Obama’s speech, it is simply a reflection of his diminished presidency. A better measure of Mr. Obama’s sinking stature is that the White House promised he would be off the air before the coin toss. After all, America has its priorities.