There was little time to mingle Tuesday night at the White House. Five minutes after greeting them, President Obama ushered 20 female senators into the State Dining Room and invited each to offer her thoughts on the issues of the day. And that was about it.
“That took up our entire two hours, to go around the table,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), recalled in an interview. “It was not the kind of warm banter that can go back and forth. People had their points they wanted to make to the president. It was all business.”
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.
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.”
“The problem is, the president, by virtue of his history, came to the White House in a way that is not your traditional way,” Daley said. “He didn’t have those long-term, traditional relationships that a Lyndon Johnson or a Kennedy or a Clinton had.”
Daley said Obama’s lack of Washington connections was a huge benefit in the campaign — “the strength of how he got elected was he didn’t have all that.” But, he added, “the downside is, you don’t have those long-term relationships.”
White House officials acknowledge that the latest outreach effort may not succeed. Obama is skeptical that the back-slapping politics employed by some of his predecessors can overcome the deep divides in Washington — and even joked about it Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington.
“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” he said, provoking laughter. “I’m sorry. I get frustrated sometimes.”
On Thursday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met with about a dozen Senate Republicans to discuss a possible path toward a budget deal. “The president has made clear that he wants to work with both sides to see if we can find a caucus of common sense to find a solution to our deficit challenges,” said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.
Obama suggested he felt burned in his first term after playing a round of golf and spending months trying to warm up House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) over a grand bargain on the debt, only to be “left at the altar,” in the president’s words. After those negotiations failed in the summer of 2011, Obama adopted a more confrontational posture, putting forward uncompromising policy proposals and using public pressure to beat up the opposition.
But lately, he has changed tactics. Instead of embracing one-on-one talks with Boehner, he is trying to win over a wider range of lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, where White House officials think having broad support gives them the best chance of getting a proposal through the Republican-controlled House.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the dinners and conversations the president has initiated are aimed at sketching out the possible parameters for a broad budget agreement rather than pressuring lawmakers. “This is not a lobbying drive that he’s waging,” she said.
White House officials and many of Obama’s allies question whether the personal-touch politics and horse-trading that greased legislation in the past can work today. Referring to former president Johnson’s famous dealmaking tactics, Daley said that these days, “you’d go to jail for what Johnson did.”
“How would you cover a story that Obama gave Senator X a military base or kept it open for a vote for gun control?” he asked. “You’d massacre them. You’d call for impeachment.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the challenge facing Obama is that he needs the support of a group of lawmakers unresponsive to broad public opinion and uninterested in political trades.
“The president obviously has a challenge in persuading House Republican members who don’t even listen to the speaker of the House,” said Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “They are much more afraid of the tea party candidate on their right than some action the president might take.”
The administration is counting on its independent political group, Organizing for Action, to draw attention to mandatory across-the-board budget cuts under the sequester and the GOP’s support for tax breaks for the wealthy. But the group has had little obvious impact.
“We’re explaining to people that the president wants a balanced approach and that’s going to include cuts,” said the group’s executive director, Jon Carson. “It’s also our job to make clear it’s Republicans who say they are absolutely opposed to raising revenue from millionaires and billionaires.”
White House officials said it will take a combination of the two strategies — outside pressure coupled with inside-the-Beltway camaraderie — to produce a bipartisan budget deal.
And for all the stiffness of Tuesday’s dinner, Obama showed he can put lawmakers at ease. When Murkowski found herself sitting next to the president, she asked him whether it would be all right for her to take off her shoes under the table.
His response: “Absolutely!” Murkowski recalled.
The senator was grateful. “It’s the end of the day, and I want to be able to take my heels off.”
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