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. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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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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