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Putting the schmoozing strategy to the test

Ask pundits in D.C. what more President Obama can do to try to reach agreements with congressional Republicans, and many will offer simple advice: schmooze more
Putting the schmoozing strategy to the test
Putting the schmoozing strategy to the test

Ask pundits in D.C. what more President Obama can do to try to reach agreements with congressional Republicans, and many will offer simple advice: schmooze more. Obama should give GOP lawmakers a call, slap them on the back, have them over for dinner, etc. I'm not especially impressed with the idea, but according to much of the establishment, it's the key to success.

At least for now, the president appears ready to give it another shot.

With Republican leaders in Congress forswearing budget negotiations over new revenues, President Obama has begun reaching around them to Republican lawmakers with a history of willingness to cut bipartisan deals.Mr. Obama has invited about a dozen Republican senators out to dinner on Wednesday night, after speaking with several of them by phone in recent days, according to people familiar with the invitation. And next week, according to those people and others who did not want to be identified, he will make a rare foray to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House.Since the weekend, the president has called at least a half-dozen Republican lawmakers, mostly senators, in a bid to revive talks toward a long-term deficit-reduction agreement and to press for action on other issues, including immigration, gun safety and climate measures.

The initial reaction has been quite positive, with several GOP lawmakers saying nice things about the presidential outreach.

Indeed, it's worth emphasizing that Obama's efforts have the potential to break new ground. Greg Sargent reminds us this morning that plenty of congressional Republicans don't even realize what the White House's positions are, so one can imagine possible breakthroughs once the president approaches them directly with a compelling pitch.

"In short," Greg noted, "Obama will tell all these Senators that he's offering them what they want, i.e., serious cuts in retirement programs, in exchange for less in new revenues, and that this is actually a very good deal for them."

The next question is whether this is likely to work.

Keep in mind, this new strategy represents a shift, but only a subtle one -- Obama has been talking to Republicans all along, but the focus has been on GOP leaders like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The president seems to have decided that talking to these two isn't producing results, so he'll try going around them and talking to rank-and-file lawmakers.

I'm deeply skeptical this will work. Boehner and McConnell aren't refusing to govern, compromise, or work in good faith because they're stubborn; they're refusing because they represent the will of their respective caucuses. By all accounts, the House Speaker likely would have accepted any number of compromise offers from the White House over the last couple of years -- if only Boehner had any confidence his own members would be willing to follow his lead.

Similarly, even some of the GOP lawmakers the president has begun chatting up aren't ignoring fair offers solely because they're intransigent; they're also ignoring fair offers because they know working constructively with a Democratic president will lead to primary challenges they may very well lose.

I don't blame Obama for trying this, and I don't doubt he has a credible message to share, but so long as Republicans remain a radicalized party with an extremist base, the GOP will not suddenly become cooperative because the president called them up and invited them to dinner.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it'll work wonders. Maybe Republicans have just been waiting for a little presidential face-time and Obama's outreach will ease the gridlock a bit. In fact, I'd be delighted to be wrong and I hope the congressional GOP exceeds my low expectations.

In this sense, let's call it a test. D.C. pundits have said presidential schmoozing will make a huge difference, and I've said the opposite. We'll see who's right soon enough.