President Obama's biggest problem used to be that he wasn't schmoozing with Congress. His biggest problem now is that he's schmoozing with Congress. Obama met with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday; he'll return to meet with House Republicans and Democrats Wednesday, after lunching with Paul Ryan and supping with a dozen Republican senators last week. What a dummy! Some drinks and dinners won't overcome a decades-long ideological battle over the size and role of government! Who gave him such terrible advice? The very same reporters who were demanding he get snacks with senators in the first place, obviously.
Obama is discovering that "Charm has its limits," The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes Tuesday. After White House press secretary Jay Carney was snippy to reporters, Milbank explains, "It was a caution to those swept away by the notion that an entirely new and amiable Obama White House has suddenly emerged: Charm is hard." And White House aides are being nicer to Republicans and reporters, but there's only so much that can do, Milbank continues:
The charm offensive — both toward lawmakers and reporters — is a welcome development. Republicans who have been the targets of Obama’s attention report sincerity and warm feelings.
But the meals and the House (and Senate) calls don’t necessarily mean things will change in the capital.
Yet not so long ago it was Milbank who suggested some schmoozing could do a lot to fix things. In a February 19 column, Milbank wrote that Obama was too busy scolding Congress to make a deal, that he hadn't even talked to deficit-cutting-plan heroes Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson in a year and a half. In a January 14 column, actually, Milbank said the talk of the town was that Obama wasn't schmoozing enough. A press conference in which Obama attacked Republicans' refusal to raise taxes was "a reminder of why Obama isn't noted for his interpersonal warmth — a topic Jackie Calmes of the New York Times asked him to address when she mentioned the criticism that he and his staff are insular and that he doesn’t socialize," Milbank said. "It's tempting to wonder whether Obama could achieve more if he could establish personal connections with Republicans on Capitol Hill." Milbank noted Obama addressed that very question in his press conference:
“I like a good party,” the president informed her after attesting to his “friendly guy” status. “Really what’s gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.”
That may be true, but until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties.
You know who else now thinks schmoozing has its limits? The New York Times' Jackie Calmes, the reporter who asked Obama if he wasn't schmoozing enough. "In President's Outreach to G.O.P., Past Failures Loom" is the headline Tuesday, in which Calmes reports that just after the election, Obama invited five Republicans to the White House for a screening of Lincoln. All five Republicans turned him down — even though other guests included director Steve Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and James Spader. They couldn't even come to the White House to meet some uncontroversial Hollywood people. This is what the White House expected. An anonymous White House aide said of the schmoozing to National Journal's Ron Fournier, "I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we're doing it for you." And they're not even happy Obama took the advice.
Milbank says that "until recent years," schmoozing helped fix the big divides in Congress. Many people make this claim. The reason the date is vague is because they're unable to pinpoint a moment when opposing parties were actually nice to each other. Was it the Clinton impeachment? Iran-Contra? Watergate? Let's go back to a quaint-sounding year: 1937. There was turmoil in Europe. We were in the Great Depression. Sounds like a good time for congressional comity, right? Yet when you search the Associated Press photo archives for "filibuster," one of the oldest results is the image at right, from November 19, 1937. Texas Sen. Tom Connally was filibustering an anti-lynching bill, so Missouri Sen. Clark put up this sign. Connally was furious that Clark would dare remind everyone of the monsters he was defending. "Protest," Connally said, according to the AP caption, "against the Senate being made the sewer for the vaporings of the senator from Missouri." The bill failed. By the way, they were both Democrats.