The Boxer and the Baller: Reid and Obama’s Unlikely Bond

The relationship between the Senate majority leader and the president helps explain why Democrats have been so unified during the shutdown fight.

LAS VEGAS - JULY 08: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (R) embraces U.S. President Barack Obama during a campaign rally for Reid at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter July 8, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Reid will face Republican Sharron Angle in the general election in November. 
Getty Images
George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

Per­haps the biggest dis­ap­point­ment about Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency has been his fail­ure to build on re­la­tion­ships forged when he was a mem­ber of the Sen­ate. In his fifth year in of­fice, his le­gis­lat­ive agenda has be­nefited little from his four years spent with oth­er law­makers in the Sen­ate gym, at com­mit­tee hear­ings, and on over­seas trips. Al­most for­got­ten is how high the hopes were when Obama be­came only the third pres­id­ent el­ev­ated to the Oval Of­fice dir­ectly from a Sen­ate seat, fol­low­ing War­ren Hard­ing and John Kennedy.

On In­aug­ur­a­tion Day 2009, there was talk of friend­ships that crossed the aisle. Ninety-one of the sen­at­ors had served with Obama. Today, after five years of struggle to push his agenda, the Sen­ate stands as the Demo­crat­ic bul­wark on Cap­it­ol Hill against a hos­tile Re­pub­lic­an House. But the hopes that the pres­id­ent could gain from per­son­al ties dis­sip­ated al­most as fast as his com­rades fled Wash­ing­ton. His­tor­ic turnover means that al­most half of today’s sen­at­ors nev­er served with Obama, 45 hav­ing been elec­ted since he moved down Pennsylvania Av­en­ue.

But today’s budget battle brings in­to sur­pris­ing fo­cus the one per­son­al re­la­tion­ship formed when he was a sen­at­or that has en­dured and is key to un­der­stand­ing the pres­id­ent’s stance on the gov­ern­ment shut­down and the show­down over the debt ceil­ing. The fight has cast a bright spot­light on Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. While Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden was the deal-maker in the last budget show­down, this time it is the pug­na­cious Re­id who is call­ing the shots on the Demo­crat­ic strategy to re­buff Re­pub­lic­an calls for ne­go­ti­ation.

Without a doubt, the Obama-Re­id pair­ing is an un­likely one — the pres­id­ent who al­ways tries to avoid fights and the sen­at­or who al­ways seems to look for them. Cer­tainly, no one talked on that In­aug­ur­a­tion Day about an Obama-Re­id friend­ship. The two men are just so dif­fer­ent in age, life ex­per­i­ences, and per­son­al­ity. But in­side the Obama White House, they fully un­der­stand that the suc­cess of Obama’s second term may well be de­term­ined by the Nevada Demo­crat who has been ma­jor­ity lead­er since 2007. “They really are of the same mind on the ma­jor is­sues,” a seni­or White House of­fi­cial tells Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We are closer today than at any time in dec­ades through dif­fer­ent pres­id­ents and dif­fer­ent ma­jor­ity lead­ers.

“The re­cord backs up that as­ser­tion. Ma­jor­ity lead­ers of­ten have found them­selves at odds with pres­id­ents of their own party over the past half-cen­tury. (Just re­call Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Howard Baker cri­ti­ciz­ing Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s tax cuts as a “ri­ver­boat gamble” in 1981.) But even with some not­able stumbles and dis­agree­ments, par­tic­u­larly in the 2011 fight over the fisc­al cliff, Obama and Re­id have be­come the most ef­fect­ive team since Pres­id­ent Kennedy worked with Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mike Mans­field of Montana in the early 1960s.

An­oth­er White House of­fi­cial calls Re­id “the face of the Af­ford­able Care Act,” fully cred­it­ing him with push­ing the bill through the Sen­ate after Demo­crats lost their 60th vote in the Mas­sachu­setts spe­cial elec­tion that brought Re­pub­lic­an Scott Brown to of­fice. And an­oth­er top aide points to the agree­ment Re­id forged in Ju­ly that broke a par­tis­an im­passe and led to the con­firm­a­tion of sev­er­al Obama ap­pointees whom Re­pub­lic­ans had blocked, in­clud­ing Richard Cordray as dir­ect­or of the Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau. “If you had come to me four months ago and I told you that Richard Cordray would be con­firmed and oth­ers con­firmed along with him, you would have looked at me like I had eight heads,” the aide says. “But we got that done, and it was be­cause of Harry Re­id.”

That of­fi­cial, who wouldn’t speak on the re­cord, ac­know­ledged the ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences between the 73-year-old Re­id, who grew up without elec­tri­city or in­door plumb­ing, the son of a miner in tiny Search­light, Nev., and the 52-year-old Obama, who grew up in com­fort in Hawaii. “Search­light is not Hon­olulu,” the aide ac­know­ledges. But, in Wash­ing­ton, Obama re­spects the fact, as an aide says, “that Harry Re­id knows his caucus and knows the Sen­ate. He is a skill­ful strategist, and we listen to him.”

Dav­id Axel­rod, the long­time Obama ad­viser, in­sists, though, that Obama’s re­la­tion­ship with Re­id goes well bey­ond this. While agree­ing that Re­id knows his caucus, Axel­rod says: “I really think it would be a mis­take to gauge their re­la­tion­ship just in terms of what Harry can de­liv­er for the pres­id­ent. There is a deep, abid­ing af­fec­tion and re­spect between these two that star­ted in the Sen­ate.” It was there that Re­id gave the fresh­man im­port­ant re­spons­ib­il­it­ies on eth­ics le­gis­la­tion. It was there, in private, that Re­id pushed the young­er man to run for the pres­id­ency when oth­er col­leagues were telling him to be pa­tient. And it was there that the two men de­veloped an of­ten-over­looked friend­ship. “It’s not like they go out to din­ner to­geth­er,” ac­know­ledges Jim Man­ley, a former long­time top aide to Re­id. “He goes home every night.”

That friend­ship didn’t re­strain Re­id from voicing his un­hap­pi­ness in 2011 when the White House was cut­ting fisc­al-cliff deals with Re­pub­lic­ans. Man­ley re­calls Re­id be­ing “very frus­trated” with the pres­id­ent’s strategy and his de­cision to let Biden and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell reach a deal. “He be­lieved — cor­rectly, as it turned out — that [Speak­er John] Boehner couldn’t com­prom­ise and couldn’t de­liv­er the votes.” That is why, Man­ley be­lieves, the pres­id­ent today is fol­low­ing Re­id’s lead. “The pres­id­ent and his team have learned that you can’t ne­go­ti­ate with the host­age-takers that are the cur­rent lead­er­ship in the House.”

There is, of course, no guar­an­tee that, in the end, Obama won’t change course and ask Biden to find a deal that Re­id won’t like, just as he did in 2011. But there is no sign of that today. And for those who think the pres­id­ent pays too much at­ten­tion to Re­id, Man­ley has a simple re­sponse: “Too damn bad.”

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