Asking If Obama Schmoozes Enough Is the Wrong Question

Americans would be better off if journalists dinged legislators whose votes can be bought for a well-timed dinner invitation. Who are they?

In David Remnick's lengthy and excellent profile of Barack Obama, he revisits a common knock on the president: that he doesn't schmooze enough with legislators.

Here's how the article puts it:

Obama’s reluctance to break bread on a regular basis with his congressional allies is real, and a source of tribal mystification in Washington. “Politics was a strange career choice for Obama,” David Frum, a conservative columnist, told me. “Most politicians are not the kind of people you would choose to have as friends. Or they are the kind who, like John Edwards, seem to be one thing but then turn out to have a monster in the attic; the friendship is contingent on something you can’t see. Obama is exactly like all my friends. He would rather read a book than spend time with people he doesn’t know or like.”

Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who was elected to the Senate three years ago, said recently that Obama’s distance from members of Congress has hurt his ability to pass legislation. “When you don’t build those personal relationships,” Manchin told CNN, “it’s pretty easy for a person to say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’”

Every time this topic comes up, it is framed as if it either reflects poorly on Obama or is an unfair criticism. Remnick lays out both theories, and perhaps leans toward the latter. The dispute doesn't interest me, so I won't weigh in. What I think about, whenever I read these stories, is what they say about Congress. Who are these shallow, frivolous legislators who'd change their votes on matters of great substance if only the president would butter them up with playdates? 

After all, the premise behind the criticism is always that Obama is doing his agenda a significant disservice by failing to schmooze, not that it might help a bit in close cases. Washington, D.C., is awash in people who've publicly alleged as much. If these people know of legislators who behave this way, why not complain about them instead? Or at least call out their behavior in addition to Obama's refusal to adapt to it. "This is the knowing talk on Wall Street, on K Street, on Capitol Hill, in green rooms—the 'Morning Joe' consensus," Remnick writes. 

Morning Joe has its share of reasonable, early-morning Washington commentary. And if they're so sure this is a thing, they must know names. So how about it, folks? Why not do a segment on the legislators most notorious for changing their votes depending on the degree to which they've been buttered up? I'll bet there are some great anecdotes floating around town on that subject. Let's hear 'em! Rather than just dinging people for failing to adapt to Washington pathologies, how about attacking the pathologies themselves this once? Americans should know if their elected representative tends to change his or her assessment of what's best for constituents based on White House dinner invites. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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