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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