President Obama’s golf diplomacy, explained

A few weeks back we exchanged emails with WaPo's Paul "PK" Kane -- our longtime friend and colleague -- about President Obama's relationship (or lack thereof) with Members of Congress.

Much of that discussion centered on the fact that Obama had not played golf with any Members in a very long time. So, when the news broke today that the President had hit the links with Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), we thought we'd re-post our conversation where PK advised him to do exactly that. It's below.

FIX: Here's my question for you: what's the truth about President Obama's relationship to members of Congress -- of both parties?

PK:  Sorry for this late reply, but the Baucus news early in the day swamped me. But it's actually a good thing, because it adds to your question: What is Obama's relationship with congressmen? Well, on Tuesday Obama called Max Baucus to congratulate him on his retirement, and in a follow-up interview with The Post's Lori Montgomery, Baucus said he focused on pushing Obama toward tax reform. Lori asked about his gun vote in opposition to Obama's plans for expanded background checks, whether it came up, and he told her that no one at any time pressured him to support the plan. "I didn't get my arm twisted by anybody on that," he told Lori.

This goes to a central critique of Obama, one that our former Post colleagues [Michael] Shear and [Peter] Baker highlighted in Tuesday's NY Times and Maureen Dowd hit on in her Sunday column. This view, that Obama does not play the inside game well, infuriated Obama loyalists like David Plouffe, who took to Twitter to slam the story as a way to back up the "Dowd BS".

The biggest problem for Obama's team is, this critique is most forcefully pushed on us reporters not from Republicans but from Democrats. Democrats are the ones who privately and publicly bemoan Obama's lack of personal persuasion. To be clear, these Democrats really like Obama and don't have a lotta complaints on his policy positions, they just believe that he has never figured out a way to use all the tools of the presidency to bend Congress to his will and get even better deals. Much was made about Obama's round of golf with Boehner in June 2011. I'm unaware of a single other round of golf that he has played with a member of Congress from either party, in the nearly 4 1/2 years he has been in office.

Mark Udall of Colorado is considered the best golfer in Congress, don't think he's ever played with Obama. Boehner's old buddy Saxby Chambliss has been in the mix for a host of possible bipartisan agreements from taxes to guns, and he loves golf. Never played with Obama.

Each election cycle the number of fundraising events that Obama does for individual Democrats (not campaign committees) can be counted on two hands. In short, Democrats on the Hill really do like Obama. They just don't really love him.

FIX: I love the golf thing. I always tell people who have never spent any time up on Capitol Hill that the whole place is driven by relationships. Most big deals -- or grand bargains I guess is what we call them now -- came as a result of a personal connection between the president and a Congressional leader (or two). They liked each other and, more importantly, trusted each other so they were more willing to deal on the tough stuff.

So, my question is this: Does Obama not LIKE Members of Congress? He's a smart guy and must understand the relationship aspect of politics. But, he doesn't seem all that committed to acting on it -- these few recent dinners aside. Does he just not want to hang out with people like Udall or Chambliss -- no matter whether or not it would be good politics?

My two cents (since you didn't ask for it): Obama is a guy who is basically a loner. He likes the few folks he likes (he plays golf with the same 4-6 people ALL THE TIME and vacations with the same people every year two.) He's bad at faking it -- a big difference between he and Bill Clinton -- and feels like pretending as though he wants to watch an Ohio
State football game with John Boehner would just reek of inauthenticity. So, he doesn't do it -- and accepts the consequences that come from it.

What say you? (And after you answer that one, I promise I will stop asking you questions -- for this week.)

PK: I don't want to fixate on the golf thing, or the dinner thing, because those are very small things, almost trivial to some extent. Yet, whether it's trivial or not, it signifies something about how members of Congress feel about Obama. We're discussing here how he feels toward them. What's equally important is how they feel about him.

When word spread two years ago that Obama and Boehner were finally going to play golf, Democrats were privately livid. They feared that this was the beginning of some side negotiation on budgets/debts (which it turned out to be) and they also were livid because, well, they never got invited out there on the course, either.

There's also a litany of complaints from congressional Democrats about other basic things, like getting invites to World Series celebrations or getting their local school to perform at St. Patrick's Day events. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that Obama is a distant figure from them. House Democrats in particular feel this way, as they went from having their friend/adviser Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, to now having someone who is an alien figure to them (career Senate staffer [Denis] McDonough). The 1st term also had Henry Waxman's former chief (Phil Schiliro) as the head of congressional relations, and now that slot is filled by a former Hillary Clinton aide.

Moreover, House Dems have disappeared from the Cabinet. Hilda Solis is gone from Labor and no one else has been picked for the second term. Of all those Democrats who lost in 2010, how many of them ended up in administration jobs? I've only been able to find one, Betsy Markey, the one-term congresswoman from east of Denver. She's assistant secretary of Homeland Security. Don't even think about the Democrats who lost in 2012 (Betty Sutton, Mark Critz, etc), they haven't gotten jobs, either. (True fact: Some ex-lawmakers would rather work in the administration and not cash out on K Street, preserving electoral viability down the road.)

In Obama's defense, he suffers a bit from what I'll call Caro Syndrome -- where we live in the universe in which everyone sees the post of Senate majority leader and president through the lens of Robert Caro and LBJ. That's just a bit ridiculous. The idea that someone can be bullied into voting their way just doesn't work in this era of freelance congressmen relying on superPACs. Harry Reid fumes every time someone wishes he could be like LBJ (for what it's worth, mild-mannered Mike Mansfield accomplished a helluva lot more than LBJ ever did as majority leader).

Your idol, Bill Simmons, often lamented how so many great writers came through Boston in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, and turned the whole idea of a Red Sox "curse" into something more than it should have been through all their books. To some degree today's politicians are suffering through that Caro curse.

But, all those provisos aside, there is still something intrinsically cool and powerful about the presidency. When Obama finally hosted a big dinner with senators, at the Jefferson in March, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) was absolutely beaming the very next day. He is as tea party as you can be in the Senate, and he's been one angry guy for most of his 2-plus years in the Senate. Yet that day, after being in a small room with the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, you could see it in his face how cool he thought it was. He talked about how Obama was charming and engaging and nice, the sorta things Ron Johnson never said about Barack Hussein Obama ever before in his life.

Three years ago at this time, Johnson was a plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh. A successful one, but still, the guy made great plastic cups. And there he was one morning three years later, a bunch of reporters surrounding him as he recounted his dinner with the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

It was a powerful moment for Johnson. Also, a powerful moment for Obama.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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