The limits of schmoozing

Updated
 
President Obama and Speaker Boehner golfing in June 2011.
President Obama and Speaker Boehner golfing in June 2011.
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It’s hardly a secret that President Obama’s efforts to reach out to congressional Republicans in recent years haven’t been especially successful. Jon Meacham suggests today that the president might have better luck in a second term if he relies more on “socializing.”

In this hour of reflexive partisan division, with Americans frustrated by Washington’s seeming inability to address significant fiscal questions, among other issues, an inevitable question arises: Can President Obama do anything to create enough good will to pass some lasting reforms?

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. 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.

In this case, Meacham is plugging Thomas Jefferson, the subject of his new book, but I’ve heard this advice before.

In April 2011, David Brooks argued Obama and Paul Ryan would better understand each other’s agenda if only the president invited the far-right congressman over for lunch. Soon after, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) advised, “The president’s got to start inviting people over for dinner. He’s got to play golf with them. He has to pick up the phone and call and say, ‘I know we disagree on this, but I just want to say – I heard it was your wife’s birthday or your kid just got into college.’ He has to go build friendships.”

In December 2011, Roll Call ran a piece complaining that the president is “aloof” when it comes to schmoozing with lawmakers, and the article included a quote from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) complaining that Obama doesn’t do enough to keep in touch.

It’s worth noting, of course, that Obama has invested some effort in this. The president has used events like the Super Bowl and March Madness to invite bipartisan groups of lawmakers over to hang out, hoping to develop a rapport. In May 2011, Obama invited a bipartisan group to the White House, not for a meeting or policy negotiations, but as part of “a get-to-know-you effort in the spirit of bipartisanship and collegiality.” Republicans accepted the invitation – and soon after launched the debt-ceiling crisis on purpose.

So much for schmoozing.

I understand the underlying point here – in Washington, interpersonal outreach is important. It’s easier to imagine policy progress when policymakers get along. I also understand the way the D.C. culture has traditionally worked – there have been times at which lawmakers were on the fence before a big vote, and a president could gently apply pressure with a White House dinner invitation and an after-meal chat on the Truman balcony.

But the radicalization of the Republican Party has changed the game. Can anyone seriously believe Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor would be more amenable to compromise if Obama called to chat from time to time?

As I’ve argued before, the notion that schmoozing will lead to progress rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.

It’s a pleasant enough fantasy, and I wish it were true, but everything we’ve seen over the last four years points to the limits of schmoozing. GOP leaders respond to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, not interpersonal outreach from a president they’ve tried to undermine at every turn.

Barack Obama

The limits of schmoozing

Updated