Obama’s just now starting to call rank-and-file Republicans?

March 6, 2013

"After more than two years of failed negotiations with GOP leaders," report Lori Montgomery and Rosalind Helderman, "President Obama is for the first time reaching out directly to rank-and-file Republicans who have expressed a willingness to strike a far-reaching budget deal that includes higher taxes."


President  Obama talks with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel during a phone call in the Oval Office, June 25, 2009 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

And that's not all! "President Barack Obama has invited a group of Republican senators to the White House for dinner Wednesday evening, a source familiar with the event confirmed." And he'll be joining Senate Republicans at their next lunch. And he will personally show up at the home of every GOP committee chairman or ranking member to salt their walks and, if the snow has begun to stick by the time he gets there, shovel their steps.

Okay, I made the last one up.

The charm offensive is already paying some dividends. "What I see from the president is probably the most encouraging engagement on a big issue I’ve seen since the early years of his presidency," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters.

Will it work? It can't hurt. The White House feels, correctly, that they're willing to go quite a bit further than many key Republicans realize. These kinds of stories deeply annoy them. Spending more time with rank-and-file Republicans, as Greg Sargent points out, gives the White House a chance to make sure its concessions aren't going unnoticed. That said, getting the concessions noticed is a long way from getting a deal.

You have to have a pretty low opinion of Washington to think that the entrenched disagreements and dangerous brinksmanship of the last few years comes down to nothing more significant than a dearth of White House coffee klatches.

But building better relationships with the Republican rank-and-file is worth a try. And better relationships with liberal legislators couldn't hurt, either. These stories raise the question of why Obama hasn't been making these efforts all along. This is the fifth year of his presidency. How can it be that the White House doesn't have stronger relationships with key, non-leadership Republicans? Why is it so rare to hear he's having key Republicans over for dinner? Why is it news that he's making calls to GOP senators?

It's a common complaint from both Republican and Democratic legislators that Obama simply doesn't like talking to them. Conservatives recall that Bill Clinton loved getting their opinion and would listen for as long as they wanted to talk -- even while they were impeaching him. I spoke recently with a liberal senator who fondly remembered that former President Bush repeatedly invited him up to the White House even as the senator spent every single day investigating and opposing Bush in the Senate -- Obama, he said, has spent less time with him than Bush did.

It would be easy to discount these complaints, but as any reporter who deals often with Congress will tell you, they're constant, and they come from both sides of the aisle. It's the same complaint that came from wealthy liberal donors during the election. Obama just doesn't like the grip-and-grin, small-talk side of politics and political players who are used to receiving that attention end up feeling neglected.

The process that typically produces national politicians selects people who like schmoozing donors and building countless relationships and sending Christmas cards to everyone they've ever met and making their colleagues feel loved. But whereas Bush and Clinton and pretty much every other president had lived and excelled in that world for a very long time as a precondition for coming to the White House, Obama's rise was so swift and unusual that he came to the White House lacking some of the typical traits of national politicians. His trajectory simply selected for different traits -- including a deep impatience with the kabuki rituals of Washington politics.

In many ways, that's why voters like him. But it doesn't always serve him well with other political elites.

 

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Brad Plumer · March 6, 2013