As President Obama launches a three-day campaign aimed at wooing members of Congress, it’s worth asking this question: why doesn’t Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) know who to talk to at the White House?
Cole was one of the first Republicans late last year to declare that his party would have to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to resolve the fiscal cliff standoff. He supported passage of the bill offering aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy, and broke ranks to vote in favor of an updated Violence Against Women Act.
“I could not tell you right now who the White House director of legislative affairs is,” Cole said in an interview Monday. “You would think somebody might come by that we could get to know, who we could talk to. Maybe they are doing it somewhere else. I don’t see it.”
For the record, Miguel Rodriguez now serves as director of legislative affairs for Obama.
During Obama’s first two years in office Cole spoke frequently with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel — a former House colleague — when Emanuel served as Obama’s chief of staff, and with Jim Papa, who used to head the legislative affairs office.
A conservative Republican who once headed the National Republican Congressional Committee, Cole gets along fine with the president. He attended the presidential signing of the Violence Against Women Act, joking as he posed for a photo with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, “This is going to be the most unusual photo in my collection.”
“Don’t worry Tom,” Obama quipped, according to Cole, “We won’t publish it.”
But he no longer has the opportunity to speak bluntly with White House officials the way he did at the outset of Obama’s tenure, in what Cole described as “the oil that makes the gears go” in the legislative process.
“They can’t possibly be getting good intelligence, because they’re not talking to enough people,” Cole said, adding that when he and other deal-minded Republicans ask each other if they’ve conferred with the White House, they end up saying, “Have you heard from anybody in the Obama administration? No, not me.”
The president’s recent overtures could very well signal an effort to address that lack of sustained dialogue with broader outreach by the White House: Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough called Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) over the weekend to follow up on the dinner the president hosted last week at the Jefferson Hotel.
“I was very encouraged,” Johnson said in an interview, adding that while he hadn’t heard much from the White House before last week, “I don’t want to talk about the past. Let’s talk about the future, and how we can solve problems.”