Jon Meacham, author of the new book “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” and I are on the same page when it comes to the use of soft executive power. In an opinion piece for the New York Times today, the historian argues that President Obama should emulate his 19th-century predecessor by socializing with Congress.
“Here is a modest proposal, one drawn from the presidency of another tall, cool, cerebral politician-writer: use the White House and the president’s personal company to attempt to weave attachments and increase a sense of common purpose in the capital,” Meacham writes. “Dinners with the president — or breakfast or lunch or coffee or drinks or golf — won’t create a glorious bipartisan Valhalla, but history suggests that at least one of our greatest presidents mastered the means of entertaining to political effect.”
Meacham is right. Obama needs to step up his game on this front. As I noted earlier this month, the president is not a fan of the theater of politics. He’s about getting things done. And there’s no better way to help move things along than sharing the trappings of power.
We saw how Obama’s attentiveness to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) during and after Hurricane Sandy turned a vocal critic’s roars in the final stretch of a presidential campaign into purrs. A ride on Marine One to survey the damage didn’t hurt either. This got me to thinking about other things big and small Obama could do to help his cause.
Meacham focuses on meals, Jefferson’s preferred political tool. I’m all for using a dining table as a town square to talk, build or strengthen bonds and achieve goals. But Obama would rather spend time with his family than socialize with Congress. So here are some other things he could do.
Everyone likes M&Ms. But M&Ms in a little box with the presidential seal? That’s a keepsake. And they’re all over the White House. Obama could send some to members with a little note to commemorate something special to them or just to be nice.
Speaking of boxes, the presidential box at the Kennedy Center sports some mighty fine center seats. Obama should share access to the swank cultural perch. Folks crane their necks to see who has the honor of sitting there. Members of Congress, preeners all, would bask in the attention.
And the president ought to give more members of Congress the same thrill he gave Christie. Rides on Air Force One, Marine One or in “The Beast” could be reserved for extra arm-twisting or an expression of thanks. That such gestures have not always succeeded for Obama should not be an impediment to doing more. His second term and his legacy may very well depend on such simple gestures.