Obama, Boehner taking to the links, but can a par really ease Washington partisanship?

June 14, 2011

Can the “Golf Summit” help reduce partisan tensions in Washington?

President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will hit the links Saturday for a highly anticipated 18 holes. The move is unusual for Obama, who often avoids mixing his hobby with politics, preferring to play with longtime friends or aides.

And it’s an attempt at building rapport between perhaps the two most important figures in Washington at a time when the economy continues to sputter and the parties can’t agree on a way to raise the federal debt ceiling. In an article published this month but before the two had agreed to play, Golf Digest declared that “there is no better way to bring these two parties together — and their two parties together.”

“There is the potential for the two of them to develop a more personal relationship,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House. “It would be nice if the president felt comfortable regularly calling the speaker on issues that are less partisan, like national security, and I don’t think that exists.”

Both sides have played down the session, which will also include Vice President Biden and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), as having any political ramifications. White House press secretary Jay Carney called it a “social outing,” adding: “They will not resolve the budget negotiations on the back nine.”

Obama, in an interview with Hearst last week, said little about his relationship with Boehner but acknowledged that he is not as good a golfer as the speaker. In Golf Digest’s annual rankings of prominent players in Washington, Boehner is No. 43, Obama No. 108.

At an event back in his district, Boehner noted he had been playing badly of late, adding that “I’ve got to get my golf game in shape” for this weekend.

In an interview on “60 Minutes” in December, a month before he became speaker, Boehner spoke of the sport’s potential benefits for building alliances, saying, “Playing golf with someone is a great way to really get to know someone.”

“You start trying to hit that little white ball; you can’t be somebody that you’re not because all of you shows up,” he said.

Democrats have long urged Obama to cultivate closer relationships with members of Congress and potential campaign donors in more informal settings.

And since the November elections, the White House has tried to restart some of the casual outreach to lawmakers that it engaged in in 2009 but largely dropped last year. The president had lunch with Boehner and other top Republicans in February.

But Boehner — until now — hadn’t earned a spot in Obama’s foursome. The president plays golf almost every weekend in the spring and summer.

It wasn’t because of partisanship, as an analysis by Politico last week showed. Obama’s outings (more than 70 since 2009) rarely include elected officials, Democrat or Republican.

Instead, he is often joined by Ben Finkenbinder, who works in the White House press office; Marvin Nicholson, who is the lead aide when the president travels out of town; and David Katz, who worked in Obama’s Senate office and now is a staffer at the Energy Department.

Washington veterans say that while the two are unlikely to walk off the course and announce a debt-limit agreement with clubs in their hands, this kind of informal meeting could reduce the tension that marked this spring’s discussions on averting a budget shutdown.

They cite the example of “codels,” the taxpayer-funded trips members of Congress take during congressional breaks to learn about issues they may later vote on. Lawmakers often return with friends from the other party after traveling and meeting foreign leaders together.

“They get to know each other, and it’s a little easier to work together. You figure out where the other person is coming from,” said Brendan Daly, a former top adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

But even if Boehner and Obama strike a personal bond over sports or even smoking (the president has recently quit; the speaker has not), it may not matter. Their jobs as leaders of opposing parties almost forces them apart.

In the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan occasionally had lunch together and eventually reached a bipartisan agreement to improve the solvency of Social Security.

At the same time, they often publicly disparaged each other, as O’Neill once dubbed Reagan a “cheerleader of selfishness.”

Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra covered the 2000 campaign as a journalist with NBC News and later produced a documentary that showed her and George W. Bush occasionally joking with each other. But Pelosi and Bush disagreed on almost every issue as speaker and president in 2007 and 2008.

The parties today are strongly divided on how to spur economic growth and reduce the budget deficit. Boehner in particular ­faces pressure from conservatives in the House who will probably object to any deal reached with Obama. And the president must evaluate any compromise in the context of his 2012 election prospects.

“I have some good relationships with Republicans because of golf,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the third-best golfer in Congress, according to Golf Digest. “But this [the Boehner-Obama round] isn’t going to make any difference, because it’s so high-profile and kind of made up. If they decided they were going to play once a month, that would make a difference.”

Staff writers Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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