After more than four years in the White House and weeks into his latest effort to woo lawmakers, Obama still isn’t very good at using his personal charm to achieve political success. Yet, it may be one of the few strategies the president has left if he hopes to accomplish his remaining second-term priorities, including a sweeping budget deal and a comprehensive immigration bill.
At this point in his presidency, Obama has pretty much tried it all. He has met privately with Republican leaders in the House, collaborated with bipartisan groups of senators and taken his case to the people, hoping that the power of public opinion could win over his opponents in Congress. This year, for the most part, none of those approaches have worked.
On April 17, Republicans and a handful of Democrats killed a Senate bill to expand background checks on gun purchases before the full body could even take a vote. Last month, despite a series of dire warnings about the effects of across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, Republicans didn’t flinch.
And on Friday it was the president who gave in, agreeing to sign a bill that would eliminate flight delays that had drawn the ire of lawmakers from both parties. The president and his aides had insisted for months that they would not pursue such piecemeal changes without concessions on taxes for the wealthy.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his regular briefing Friday that there wasn’t much the president could do to sway members of Congress. “You’re imagining leverage here, that it’s about political gamesmanship,” Carney said.
Not the usual connections
Obama has long been adept at marshaling public support during his political campaigns and at major national moments. His speeches on gun control in Denver and West Hartford, Conn., this month drew wide praise. But the failure of the background-checks measure, which had strong public support, was a reminder that many lawmakers are impervious to public opinion outside their local communities.
That leaves Obama with the option of doing something he’s not particularly good at: forging personal ties with other politicians. Obama has hosted four dinners with lawmakers in recent weeks, including last week’s gathering with female lawmakers, as part of an effort that has yet to bear much fruit — and probably won’t for some time.
William M. Daley, who served as Obama’s chief of staff between January 2011 and January 2012 and who encouraged more informal encounters with lawmakers, said in an interview that building such relationships “takes a lot of time.”