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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

By Anne E. Kornblut
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.

Several White House advisers said they expect that perception to start to change, in part from political necessity as the president forges new alliances with the Republican Congress. Already, in the lame duck session, he found common cause on taxes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) - who is equally uninterested in schmoozing and would rather get down to business, one of his aides said.

Yet in numerous interviews, donors and outside consultants, along with lawmakers in both parties, complained about what they described as Obama's arm's-length treatment. They did so on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about the president's personality.

Obama rarely makes a spontaneous phone call, as President Bill Clinton would, or stays well past the dessert course because he is engrossed in conversation. His social encounters are highly scheduled, and to participants they sometimes feel forced unless they are also about work. "He's disdainful of things that make people feel connected to him," one Democratic leader said. "People want to feel like they have a relationship, and he stridently resists."

It is a characteristic that dates back to his early adulthood, at least. On the first page of his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama describes himself as a 21-year-old loner who was "prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions" and to avoid excessive social contact in his New York neighborhood.

"If the talk began to wander, or cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself," Obama wrote in the 1995 memoir. "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew."

The Republican lawmaker said Obama "always seems a little uncomfortable" in social settings, unlike his two predecessors.

This year's White House holiday party for members of Congress was no exception, he said. Where Vice President Biden was chatting up members - telling jokes and slapping his former congressional colleagues on the back - and Michelle Obama was "great with kids, and humoring politicians," her husband seemed less enthralled by having guests sidle up to him. In most cases, Obama spent only a moment or two with each at the photo line.

Obama did, of course, have thousands of photos to endure throughout 20 holiday parties at the White House, making the encounters necessarily brief and awkward. At the same time, he literally rushed to one of them - the one he held for his staff - leaving Clinton behind in the White House briefing room taking questions from reporters.

The Clinton comparison may be part of Obama's difficulty. Although Clinton was sometimes social to the point of being unproductive, he was able to forge relationships with Republican leaders who took power halfway through his first term. That did not, of course, prevent his impeachment trial. But it left members who personally encountered Clinton feeling that they were worthy of personal attention and that the president remembered them. Donors sometimes felt as if they were practically family.

Today's gripes are largely a result of the change in atmosphere for Democrats. "Those complaints are fundamentally from people that were spoiled by Bill Clinton - both political people and the donor community, people like me that have 42 pictures of themselves with Bill Clinton," California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said. "I don't know that it's a reality that any president is going to duplicate.

In fact, President George W. Bush was no more fond of cultivating donors or new friends than his successor is, and he tended to retire to the residence at an even earlier hour. But what Bush lacked in enthusiasm for late-night events he made up for in nicknames and jokes. Bush also knew how to win certain men's hearts: He assiduously cultivated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, inviting his family for a movie at the White House, naming a Justice Department building for Kennedy's brother Robert and hosting a black-tie dinner in honor of his sister Eunice.

People who have worked with Obama acknowledged he is not - and will never be - the kind of jocular creature Bush was, nor overly social as Clinton was. If he is branching out now, either with donors or Republicans, it is to achieve specific goals rather than forge new but vague alliances.

Another veteran Democratic consultant who knows both presidents said that whether Obama relishes it or not, he should be nudged in a more expansive direction in the coming months. Onetime Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta "walled off time for Clinton not to talk to people. Obama needs the opposite," she said.

Now, Obama needs his chief of staff, Pete Rouse, to do the opposite, the consultant said. "He needs Pete to say, 'You're playing golf with Boehner at 3 - get in the car.' "

kornbluta@washpost.com Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

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