Every few weeks for the last four years, someone has published a story about how President Obama does not like to do all the chummy socializing with Congress that is necessary to make deals to pass legislation. Obama has repeatedly indicated that he thinks that analysis is stupid. But this week, Obama finally caved. He is scheduling lunches and dinners and phone calls with Republicans. He is now here to make friends.
The sequester has gone into effect, and no deal has materialized, so Obama is working behind the scenes to woo people on Capitol Hill. Or at least, the White House is waging a PR offensive to get op-ed writers to praise him for doing so. And there's good reason to be skeptical that Obama has had a sincere change of heart about the efficacy of these tactics. He hasn't just pushed back against criticism that he doesn't schmooze enough, he's mocked it with belittling terms meant to show that he thinks the idea is childish. Obama scoffed at the idea that "I should somehow do a Jedi mind meld" to change GOP minds at a press conference last week. In a January press conference, Obama said, "With respect to this truism about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I'm a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party." A good party wouldn't stop a congressman from calling him a socialist on the House floor, he said. But post-sequester, Obama has changed his mind.
"The president is interested in, you know, finding members of the caucus of common sense and working with them to bring about a resolution to this challenge," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. You can tell this is an effort to win over Congress and the press by the Senate-style self-aggrandizing brand name — "caucus of common sense," which will fit in quite nicely with "the gang of eight," "the gang of 14," "the three amigos," etc. In addition to the brand name, there will also be snacks.
Obama will have dinner Wednesday night with 11 Republican senators: Ron Johnson, John Hoeven, Pat Toomey, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Bob Corker, Kelly Ayotte, Dan Coats, Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Mike Johanns. He will attend Senate Republicans weekly lunch next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced. "Senate Republicans welcome the President to the Capitol. And I appreciate he took my recommendation to hear from all of my members," McConnell said in a statement. (Obama hasn't lunched with them since May 2010, Roll Call notes.) Obama will also meet with House Republicans, House Democrats, and Senate Democrats. And Obama has been making phone calls, The New York Times reports, to at least six Republicans since the weekend.
And now senators being courted are praising Obama for the courting. "I think this is going to pay dividends for the country," Graham told Roll Call. (Graham has floated agreeing to $600 billion in new revenue in a budget deal.) "It's long overdue," Maine Sen. Susan Collins said, but, "Even though it may be belated, at least the president does seem to be extending an olive branch." She is hopeful for the common sense caucus. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson echoed that sentiment to the Times today: "I've always said I'm willing to work with anybody who's willing to acknowledge the problem to solve it. Maybe that got noticed." Tellingly, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt tells Roll Call a phone call won't get Obama more tax revenue, but then, Blunt hasn't gotten one of those coveted phone calls yet. Obama aides have only made overtures.
There are real, meaningful reasons for the wooing. The Associated Press reports Obama is working with Republicans to come up with a sequester replacer that at least gives the Pentagon flexibility in putting $85 billion in spending cuts into effect. But it's impossibly not to suspect that a public opinion play is now in effect as well — that in addition to Republicans, Obama has another audience in mind: centrist op-ed writers and editors. The number of why-isn't-Obama-schmoozing stories has been overwhelming. A small sample:
- "Bipartisan Agreement: Obama Isn’t Schmoozing," The New York Times December 28, 2011.
- "Democrats wait by phone for President Obama," Politico May 22, 2012.
- "Obama: Fatherhood More Important Than Building Relationships With Lawmakers," The Huffington Post, September 2, 2012.
- "The Perils of Being Aloof," National Journal January 8, 2013.
- "Obama Could Ease D.C. Gridlock If He Socialized More, Critics Say," Newsweek January 15, 2013.
- "Takes One to Tango," was the headline The New York Times put on Maureen Dowd's January 15, 2013 column, though the Pennsylvania Patriot-News' headline was more blunt: "Op-ed: Obama should schmooze GOP in second term."
- "Hill Democrats want more love from President Obama, " Politico, February 4, 2013.
Maybe Obama didn't mean that Jedi mind tricks don't exist when he ridiculed them in that press conference. Maybe he just meant he hadn't fully developed his mind meld yet. He'll now have several lunches and dinners at which to test them out.