When a beleaguered Barack Obama steps to the podium before a joint session of Congress Thursday night to deliver a speech on the most pressing issue facing the nation, one has to wonder whether congressional Republicans will even bother to show up.
One has to wonder whether anyone in America will show up. The President's jobs speech, humiliatingly wedged into a non-primetime 7 pm slot between folks on the west coast tidying their cubicles or getting stuck in rush hour traffic and the special Thursday night NFL season kickoff edition of Sunday Night Football, had the air of futile irrelevance.
Talk about diminished: White House spokesperson Jay Carney had to assure America that Obama wouldn't preempt the game's opening kickoff.
It was hard to imagine the President's jobs speech as bearing any sort of relevance. Clearly, Republicans would deny, deride and ridicule every proposal he made, no matter how innocuous. It was in the Republicans' interest to make sure the economy they and George W. Bush crashed in 2008 stayed crashed until 2012.
It was hard to imagine Obama having any sort of relevance in any venue. He was a man defeated and discarded by virile Republican legislators who held all the cards and called all the shots. He was a man who needed permission for every action.
Republicans had even demanded they be allowed to vet Obama's speech before he delivered it. One could imagine Obama raising his hand to ask House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) permission to use the bathroom.
And being told to wait.
Throughout the Republicans' grinding, unconscionable, summer-long hostage-taking of the normally pro forma debt ceiling hike, no one seemed to notice that Barack Obama and the prestige of the Office of the President of the United States had steadily, inexorably been strangled and humiliated to death.
Republicans masterfully leveraged ransoming the debt ceiling not just to extort outrageous budget-busting spending cuts they couldn't have dreamed of extracting through normal legislative processes: Republicans effectively destroyed the Obama Presidency, all but making good on their promise to hold Obama and Democrats to a single term in the White House.
Barring some last moment, fourth down, eighty-yard hail-Mary pass more appropriate, if no less likely, for the kind of football game following Obama's Thursday speech, rather than the football game that was the last fifteen months of his Presidency, future historians will doubtless mark the debt-ceiling drama as the debacle that destroyed Obama.
Before the debt-ceiling debacle, Obama was another President fighting a recalcitrant Congress. After the debt-ceiling debacle, Obama was an irrelevant outcast in tattered rags loitering next to the freeway on-ramp plaintively holding up a hand-drawn cardboard sign reading, "Will address Congress for food."
President Bill Clinton was right. Obama should have invoked the 14th Amendment, raised the debt ceiling unilaterally, and dared this opponents to take him to court as though they were shrieking harpies screaming for a big divorce settlement. It would have made Obama appear strong, decisive, audacious, even reckless: all traits Americans admire and respect. It would have saved his Presidency.
But Obama was a born appeaser.
It was difficult to pin down the exact moment Republicans destroyed Obama. Sometime between Obama's forthright call for a clean debt-ceiling hike, and his concession to consider the nation's budget deficit, and his vision for a $4 trillion deficit reduction Grand Bargain gone awry, and his scrambling around looking for someone, anyone, to return his phone calls, Obama went from Commander-in-Chief to Capitulator-in-Chief to chiefly ignored and irrelevant.
Tragically, Obama's debasement had been so unnecessary. Republicans controlled only the lower chamber of the legislative branch, while Democrats controlled the Senate and the Presidency. A strong President would have brushed aside the rancorous extremists of the Tea Party and the far right wing of a minority already disgraced by the Bush years, a mere fly buzzing around the periphery of power.
But Obama was intent on inclusion, consensus and compromise, without understanding his opponents would only see weakness, appeasement, and capitulation.
During the debt ceiling negotiations, taunting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) delighted in driving a frustrated Obama from the room virtually in tears as though the Leader of the Free World was some thirteen-year-old girl spurned by the cutest boy in class.
Surely, Obama had someone from Homeland Security, from law enforcement, from TV crime dramas to tell him you never, ever negotiated with terrorists. It was not as though Obama was on an island as congressional Republicans harangued him with their demands. The vast majority of Americans despised the Republican hostage-takers. Even such Republican stalwarts as former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill derided the hostage-takers as, "a form of al Qaeda terrorists."
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), mistaking Obama's dedication to appeasement for stubborn determination, offered the President essentially a clean debt ceiling hike that quickly garnered bipartisan support as the clock ticked down toward national insolvency and default.
The Republicans actually blinked, disbelieving anyone could be so placatory as Obama, but Obama couldn't accept victory. Obama, flailing for a grand bargain as though trying to prove that was the only reason he'd allowed himself to be taken hostage in the first place, would only settle for defeat and humiliation.
McConnell and such old-guard Republicans as John Kyl (R-AZ) and John McCain (R-AZ), who backed the double-reverse clean debt ceiling hike at considerable political cost to themselves, will not make that mistake again.
Thus defeated, humiliated and emasculated, Obama will step to the podium Thursday night to beg Republicans to extend a middle class tax cut they won't extend without extracting more tax cuts, breaks and subsidies for the rich elsewhere in the budget, and to implore the GOP for two or three lousy hundred billion dollars in infrastructure repairs they'll just laugh out of town and which wouldn't be nearly enough to pull America from its economic malaise anyway.
Fortunately, no one will tune in to watch this penultimate debasement of the President of the United States. Everyone will say they were stuck in traffic, or they weren't interested in politics, or they were getting onion dip and a beer for kickoff.
In fact, no one wanted to see their President humiliated and debased. In fact, everyone will avert their eyes, as everyone does when seeing a tattered man in rags plaintively holding up a ragged cardboard sign.