Listening to President Obama defend his social habits at a Monday press conference, the song that comes immediately to mind is Eddie Murphy’s 1985 hit, “Party All the Time.” Obama says he and Michelle are friendly folks: they invite members of Congress over all the time, and Obama actually likes House Speaker John Boehner – golfing together was fun! But at the same time, he didn’t sound like he actually believed those relationships had much to do with his ability to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
For all the ways Washington is more broken than it ever has been, at least one thing remains constant: it’s still a relationship town. While Obama wasn’t able to broker a grand deal in the fiscal cliff showdown after weeks of negotiations, Vice President Joe Biden managed to cut a scaled back deal in 24 hours’ time. It was classic, backroom Washington wheeling-and-dealing that ruled the day.
For Biden to get that imperfect deal that just about everybody hated, he needed a partner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell played that role. McConnell and the president have a fractious relationship, particularly since McConnell said in 2010 his party’s top goal would be to make Obama a “one-term president." But McConnell and Biden? They’ve known each other from serving together for more than 20 years in the Senate, and they trust each other. Each man knows that the other can deliver on their promises. The two didn’t even have to meet up in person in December – they hammered out the deal on taxes over the phone.
It’s those sorts of particulars of a relationship that can help grease the wheels in Washington, especially when ideological differences are indeed so significant. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan famously drank at the White House together.
It’s unclear whether Obama truly values that kind of relationship building as crucial to breaking gridlock. Obama reasoned Monday that deals don’t get cut in Washington because of stark ideological differences between the two parties and the political ramifications of compromise for Republicans representing deeply conservative districts. While admitting on Monday that “personal relationships are important” and “I can always do a better job,” Obama doesn’t seem to believe hamming it up with members of Congress will get them to budge on their priorities.
And maybe it won't. Obama said Monday that if Americans “reject sort of uncompromising positions or sharp partisanship or always looking out for the next election, and they reward folks who are trying to find common ground, then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that will be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick-in- the-mud.”
But while he doesn’t have to party all the time, it wouldn’t hurt for him to dance with the opposing party a little bit more.
CLARIFICATION: Obama's full remarks about his social habits were: "With respect to this 'truism' about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy."