President Obama deserves to be congratulated for his victory, as well as reminded that his win, with 50 percent of the vote, means that half of Americans who cast their ballots preferred either Mitt Romney or some other candidate. The victory offers the president the opportunity to win over people who voted against him—people who obviously felt that his performance during his first four years had not measured up. In fairness, most of those who voted against Obama did so out of ideology or partisanship. But at least 8 million people who voted for him in 2008 didn’t do so in 2012.
The question to ask right now is this: How will the next four years be different from the last four? Or, more specifically: What did Obama learn from the first term that he will apply to the second? He has conceded that he has not been a perfect president and has made mistakes, but I’ve never heard him elaborate about what mistakes he thinks he has made. As a result, I have no idea what Obama might believe he should do differently.
If he asked me, I’d say he might start by engaging Congress, maybe even getting to know members a little and starting a dialogue. When senior members of the president’s own party admit that they have had virtually no interaction with him, and when I hear Democrats say that no representative of the White House has stepped foot in their offices in four years, that’s a problem. This issue persists across party lines, whether it’s Obama’s relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Whether the tea party freshmen have or haven’t been obstructionist can be debated, but when a president has virtually no relationship with members of his own party and congressional leaders of the opposite party, he’s hurting himself and his agenda.
It is very hard to spend any time on Capitol Hill without getting an earful from both sides of the aisle about the president’s poor relations with Congress. And this isn’t talk from freshman or sophomore members who have little reason to think they should be interacting with the president. We’re talking committee and subcommittee chairs and ranking members—people who have been with him on some awfully tough votes and have gotten very little love back for it.
Without question, Obama’s dealings with Congress are the worst in modern history, and that includes President Carter’s pitiful relationship with congressional Democrats when he was in office. In his 104 rounds of golf as president, Obama has played with only two members of Congress, according to the records of Mark Knoller, White House correspondent for CBS Radio and also the unofficial presidential statistician (Knoller is truly a national resource). These rounds were played on June 18, 2011, with Boehner at Joint Base Andrews, in what was obviously more of a photo op than a round of golf, and twice with then-House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Aug. 24, 2009, and Aug. 20, 2010, on Martha’s Vineyard. Knoller reports that of Obama’s 40 basketball games that he knows about, only one included members of Congress, when on Oct. 8, 2009, he played with 11 House members and several members of his Cabinet. It’s easier to find a liberal Democratic member who visited the White House family quarters while George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush served than under Obama.
It was widely reported that before taking office four years ago, Obama read historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fabulous book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and that it may have been the inspiration for his decision to ask former opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of State. Might I suggest another book: Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Actually, I recommend all four of Caro’s volumes on Johnson that have come out so far, but for the moment, Obama should read the volume covering Johnson’s first six months as president and how he successfully pushed through Congress the late President Kennedy’s stalled income tax cut and the Civil Rights Act. It highlights the wheeling and dealing, cajoling, seduction, and threatening that is required to move heaven and earth to be a successful president.
Johnson didn’t outsource congressional relations to congressional leadership—or, for that matter, to his staff. He listened to the concerns, objections, and demands of key members to ascertain what he needed to do to get their support or, failing that, secure a pledge not to actively oppose his agenda. Whether one approves or disapproves of the substance of Johnson’s actions as president, he was the gold standard in terms of dealing with Congress.
Unfortunately, Obama spent only a brief time as a senator. Really, he had just 2005 as a full-timer, since much of his 2006 was devoted to being the most in-demand surrogate speaker in the Democratic Party for that year’s midterm elections, while 2007 and 2008 were spent running for president. By every indication, Obama doesn’t know many members or show much interest in getting to know that many. As one longtime Democratic lobbyist told me, “It seems like their [the White House’s] motto is, ‘No new friends.’ ”
So, as we look ahead to avoiding the fiscal cliff and to putting together a grand bargain on the budget next year, the most important question in my mind is whether Obama chooses to engage the Hill, or to remain distant and aloof and to continue to farm out his dealings with members of Congress.
This column appeared in print as "An Insular Obama."
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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