President Obama is headed to Capitol Hill this week, starting Tuesday afternoon, in his continued pursuit of that mythical grand bargain—taking a page from the playbook of the greatest president who never lived. This non-negotiating negotiation is supposed to be the next stage of Obama's "charm offensive" as he tries to undo four years of frosty relations between himself and his Congressional adversaries. But is it a sincere attempt to make new friends in Washington, or a devious ploy borrowed from The West Wing strategies of President Josiah Bartlet?
Obviously, political and TV junkies love to make comparisons to the Obama White House and the fictional liberal fantasy team of Aaron Sorkin's Bartlet Administration, but the comparison this time seem a little more apt than usual. Not that Bartlet invented the move, but his was on television.
Specifically, we're talking about the episode titled "Shutdown," when—in a parallel to the 1995 showdown between President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich—a budget impasse forces the fictional TV government to, yes, shut down. (Season 5, Episode 8, if you're following along on Netflix.) Unable to find any room for compromise, President Bartlet marches to the Capitol building to talk to the Republican Congressional leadership. Literally. He gets out of his limo and walks up Pennsylvania Avenue, news cameras in tow. When the surprised Republicans snub the President by making him wait in the hallway, he leaves empty-handed, swinging public sympathy to his side, and eventually helping him win the budget fight.
Don't expecting anything quite so dramatic today, but President Obama's calculation is very much the same as Bartlet's was—if they won't come to me, I'll go to them. And if they still won't make a deal with me, then that's their problem. That's a point dramatically underscored by the lead anecdote in today's New York Times, that the president (the real one this time) specifically invited Congressional leaders to the White House all the way back in November and they refused to come. Yes, five Republican leaders passed up a chance to watch Lincoln—a movie about a president trying to make a deal with Congress—in the White House theater and meet Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, because they thought they had better things to do. To say nothing of the fact that they turned down a personal invitation to visit the home of the President of the United States and then want to turn around and complain that he doesn't reach out to them enough.
Who knows if the President is really that cynical or not? Although this anonymous quote in National Journal suggest that at least some people in the White House are: "This is a joke. We're wasting the president's time and ours. I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we're doing it for you."
Maybe Obama sent the Lincoln invitation late, knowing it would look bad (for them) when they wouldn't be able to accept. And maybe you think the compromises he offers this week won't really be compromises. But no matter what you think about either side's policy proposals, this week's meetings are built to at least make it look like he's trying. He's symbolically making the first move. If the Republicans refuse to take the second, then they're the bad guys. Maybe no deal will be had, but no one will be able to say Barack didn't try, right? What more can he do?
Will it work? Probably not as effectively as it did for President Bartlet (who wrapped up the whole budget crisis in 48 minutes), but it might win him some points with the general public and that might just be enough to push the ball forward slightly on a budget deal. And if we get a good hour of television out of it, then that's just a bonus.