Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly referred to the Congress that will be seated next month as Republican. That error was repeated in a headline. The House will have a Republican majority, but Democrats will retain their majority in the Senate. This version has been corrected.

With a GOP House, Obama's social side starts to thaw

President Obama keeps many people at arm's length in social settings, say some donors, outside consultants and lawmakers.
President Obama keeps many people at arm's length in social settings, say some donors, outside consultants and lawmakers. (Chip Somodevilla/getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 12:00 AM

Solitary by nature, President Obama has always been a man of boundaries.

He curtailed donor access to the White House early in his term, annoying prominent Democrats who were accustomed to being courted. His frequent golf games the past two years have been mostly limited to a familiar handful of younger aides.

He banters with his top advisers around the West Wing but does not spend hours regaling them with stories or invite them in to keep him company, several said. He has cultivated few, if any, new friends since taking office. And until recently, his calls to members of Congress have been rare.

He has, some might say, a schmooze deficit.

But as the president adapts to the new reality of a Republican House, an unfamiliar side of him has started to emerge: that of a man who is willing to engage a wider range of people more often - even if for just a little while.

In recent weeks, Obama invited leaders in both parties to join him at Camp David in the new year. He worked the phones during the negotiations over an arms treaty with Russia, helping secure its passage by cajoling members of Congress. Along with first lady Michelle Obama, he hosted nearly two dozen holiday parties, adding photo lines for many more guests after complaints last year that he was inaccessible.

Obama is even open to playing a round of golf with incoming Republican House speaker John Boehner, a senior administration official said. "I could certainly see a scenario where that does happen," the official said.

Obama, it seems, is trying. Steve Hildebrand, a close adviser in the 2008 campaign, said the job of working the donor circuit, for instance, "is not one he relishes." But, he said, "there's no doubt he knows that's an important role for him to play."

His limited charm offensive, however, may be too late for his Republican critics and too little for Democratic donors, who expect more fawning attention before being asked to open up their checkbooks heading into the 2012 presidential campaign. That Obama is aloof is a caricature of the man, but it's one that may not be easy to erase.

Advisers said a more accurate description is of someone simply self-reliant, lacking the insecurity gene that leads other politicians to crave constant attention and seek new acquaintances. "In his private time, he likes to be with his friends," another close White House adviser said. "Admittedly, it's a complaint you hear from fundraisers and reporters - that he doesn't schmooze. But he just doesn't like being with people who he doesn't necessarily know."

But there can be a downside to his cloistered approach: It does not give him ready access to political friendships that can prove helpful in a pinch or let him explore ideas with allies - or foes - outside the formal setting of meetings and phone calls. One Democrat who has been invited to the White House for several meetings said that at one encounter, Obama's appearance was so brief he did not even ask any of his supporters questions or advice.

Some lawmakers see it more as a sign of insularity, if not arrogance. "He doesn't suffer fools, and he thinks we're all fools," one senior Republican member of Congress said.

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