Amateur Hour at the White House

The public is tuning out the president.

We can't yet judge President Barack Obama's speech Thursday before a joint session of Congress. But it's not too early to render a judgment on the run-up to the address: It's been amateur hour in the West Wing.

Eight days ago, Mr. Obama announced he would address Congress on the same evening that a Republican presidential debate was scheduled at the Reagan Library. White House press secretary Jay Carney claimed it was merely a "coincidence." But his denial was soon undermined by comments to reporters by unnamed White House aides, who made it clear they intended to have the president drown out the GOP debate.

In any event, House Speaker John Boehner rightly nixed the date, pointing out that Wednesday was Congress's first day back from its August recess and both the House and Senate must first pass resolutions inviting the president to appear.

Mr. Boehner was making an important point about institutional prerogatives. By setting the date and time of his own appearance, Mr. Obama was doing his best impression of an imperial president. A president addresses a joint session of Congress only at the invitation of the co-equal legislative branch. Mr. Obama didn't seem to care. Mr. Boehner reminded him why he should.

So the president was forced to cave. To add to his humiliation, Mr. Obama will now appear on television just prior to Thursday's marquee NFL matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. It's somehow fitting that the president will be speaking before prime time.

Apart from the controversy over the speech's date is the speech itself. Is it necessary? No, since the time is long past when a speech will begin to repair our broken economy. This is the third summer in which the president assured Americans that the recovery was well under way—and the third summer in which the economy failed to recover.

Indeed, it appears Mr. Obama set the date of his address before he had a clear idea of what its content would be, which explains why White House aides have recently been trying to lower expectations.

And what will be the president's tone? When he announced his speech, Mr. Obama wrote, "It is my intention to lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy." Then at Monday's Labor Day Rally in Detroit he questioned the opposition's patriotism, saying "We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party."

My sense is Mr. Obama is trying to channel Harry Truman, circa 1948, to create the impression of a "do-nothing" Republican Congress to run against. The problem is that Truman's agenda was popular. Mr. Obama's hasn't been and is unlikely to be.

Nor is the president's speech likely to change public opinion. At this point, the only thing that can rescue Mr. Obama's dismal approval rating on the economy is an improvement in the dismal economy itself.

The great danger facing Mr. Obama tonight is that the public simply tunes him out, viewing his pronouncements as either irrelevant or annoying.

It's been a dramatic fall for a man who was, his supporters assured us in 2008, America's best orator since Abraham Lincoln. Now he's reduced to a warm-up act for a football game.

Given the awful state of the economy and the hapless execution by the White House, it isn't surprising that the president was greeted this week with a slew of bad polling data showing his approval rating at new lows. Nearly 80% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and, depending on the poll, disapproval of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy ranges from the mid-50s to the low 60s.

There was one other telling number, buried in this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll: When he was inaugurated, 70% felt that Mr. Obama had "strong leadership qualities." Today, only 42% feel that way. And when voters stop seeing a president as a strong leader, they generally stop seeing him as president.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 7, 2011.