President Obama didn’t crack a lot of jokes or smiles at the 21st news conference of his first term. Granted, he was talking about serious matters like the safety of schoolchildren and the fiscal state of the nation. Still, his stern tone throughout made it all the more striking when, at the end, he was asked about complaints that he’s not enough of a schmoozer.
He had only to look to his secretary of State for a model response to a question like this. Five years ago, when a New Hampshire debate moderator asked then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton what she would say to Democratic primary voters who “seem to like Barack Obama more,” she replied with a smile, “Well, that hurts my feelings.” Amid huge laughs and applause, as the moderator said he was sorry, she added, still in a teasing mode, "But I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad."
"You’re likable enough Hillary, no doubt about it," Obama interjected, in what he may have assumed would be taken as an extension of the teasing tone of the exchange. But instead he was seen as belittling Clinton, and it was a major setback at a key moment in the primary contest.
Obama’s response was similarly awkward Monday on the question of whether he is too insular and doesn’t socialize enough. "I'm a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party," he insisted.
Partier-in-chief? Can we see the photos?
Seriously, the president had a point when he said that regardless of his social skills, "some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.”
Exhibit A, he said, was his golf game with House Speaker John Boehner. "I like Speaker Boehner personally. And when we went out and played golf, we had a great time. But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011," Obama said.
Obama also had an Exhibit B. "When I’m over here at the congressional picnic, and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time,” he said. "But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist."
However, Obama is not exactly a regular on the course with Boehner — they’ve played once. And a mass congressional picnic is not quite the kind of personal attention that turns politicians from lions to lambs (see: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, pinch-worthy ride on Marine One, reconciliation with Bruce Springsteen). Furthermore, Obama managed to turn the picnic into a dig at the hypocrisy of lawmakers who want photos with the leader of the free world between rounds of harsh attacks on him.
Obama hinted he might try harder in his second term. "Now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house," he said. "So maybe, maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more."
That was kind of a joke. There’s clearly no love lost in either direction. Furthermore, Obama said a lot of Republicans avoid keeping company with him because “they don’t consider the optics useful for them politically.” They want to avoid looking “too cooperative or too chummy with the president,” he said (see: former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, hug).
He said some of that is due to how conservative media outlets have “demonized” him. “I promise you, we invite folks from Congress over here all the time,” Obama said. “And when they choose to come, I enjoy their company.”
Will the president become more sociable and keep his edge in check? Will the GOP concede he won reelection and isn't a socialist Typhoid Mary? A tea leaf may be coming up soon. Obama hosted White House Super Bowl parties in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Does he revive the event? How many Republicans does he invite? How many accept? And does he tear his eyes away from the game to actually talk to anyone?
Hey, it would be a start.