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December 05, 2011 1:20 PM The limits of schmoozing, wooing, and charm

By Steve Benen

Roll Call has a piece today arguing that President Obama has been “aloof” when it comes to congressional Republicans, and this in turn “casts doubt” on the White House’s “ability to influence Congress.”

Though Republicans are in a good position to hold the levers of power in both chambers come 2013, several rank-and-file GOP Senators told Roll Call last week that Obama hasn’t called them at all this year — and several said his standoffish relations have hurt his agenda in a chamber that is pivotal to any White House legislative successes.

Obama did have all Senate Republicans up to the White House for a cattle call earlier this year, and he engaged in extensive discussions with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on this summer’s debt deal. But direct contacts between the president and lawmakers have slowed to a trickle as he gears up for re-election, Republicans said.

A senior Republican aide said Obama has had just three brief phone calls with Boehner since unveiling his jobs package — and there’s been no real effort to work with the Speaker.

The piece goes on from there, referencing one complaint after another from Republicans who don’t know why White House officials seem to have stopped reaching out. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who was the recipient of overwhelming presidential attention in 2009 and 2010, said, “I don’t expect the president every day to be calling me or somebody else. [But] I think what you do expect is to have a team that can work through the various issues … and build a consensus.”

The White House pushed back against this, pointing to all kinds of direct engagement with lawmakers, though I’m not in a position to evaluate the West Wing’s schmoozing efforts with Capitol Hill. I am, however, comfortable arguing that the complaints are wildly off-base.

The crux of the Republican grumbling here is that interpersonal outreach matters, and that it apparently hurts their feelings when the White House doesn’t keep in touch. The underlying point seems to be that regular outreach — phone calls, chats, meals, visits, etc. — can lead to policy progress.

I can imagine a period in which this may have been true. On-the-fence lawmakers who weren’t sure about a certain bill might be cajoled, in eras past, by a dinner at the White House and an after-meal chat with the president on the Truman balcony.

But does anyone seriously believe that today’s congressional Republicans would be more cooperative if Obama periodically called them to see how they’re doing?

In his first two years, Obama really did try a lot of this. He’d regularly connect with lawmakers, and even used occasions like the Super Bowl and March Madness to invite bipartisan groups of lawmakers over to hang out. Did it encourage GOP officials to be amenable to compromise? No, actually it didn’t have any effect at all.

The notion that schmoozing will lead to progress rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.

It’s a pleasant enough fantasy, but it’s at odds with reality. Does anyone seriously believe a party that held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to crash the economy on purpose, is going to suddenly start cooperating with Obama — whose presidency they are desperate to destroy — because of routine, casual chats?

Republicans don’t respond to interpersonal outreach; they respond to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Grover Norquist, and the dictates of their radicalized ideology.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Short Answer on December 05, 2011 1:24 PM:

    FU, you F'ing idiots at Roll Call!

    Geeebus. Well, at least we know being retarded doesn't keep you from getting a job in DC.

  • Josef K on December 05, 2011 1:28 PM:

    Haven't we heard all this before? I'm sure we have.

  • DDXS on December 05, 2011 1:31 PM:

    Roll Call believes this BS without question?

    Its like if you discover that someone treats you like an Ahole and you aviod that person. Then they complain that your avoiding them?

    Maybe someone should tell them that they are Aholes. They know it, but it would not stop them from complaining.

    Get serious. Wait they are Republicans.

  • Curmudgeon on December 05, 2011 1:31 PM:

    I think the Dems need fewer political consultants and more psychological warfare experts on the payroll. Republicans excel in abusive manipulation techniques which Democrats seem hopelessly unable to cope with, and it doesn't have to be that way.

    Charlie Brown should stop trying to connect with that elusive football that is always yanked away at the last second and just kick Lucy right in the head. Several times if necessary. Metaphorically of course, but really, isn't it about time that Democrats stopped being the perpetual victims and believing that martyrdom is a virtue?

    C'mon, Dems, stand up on your back legs and fight!!

  • Quaker in a Basement on December 05, 2011 1:32 PM:

    Holding public policy hostage until the Preznit giv them turkee...

  • c u n d gulag on December 05, 2011 1:33 PM:

    Curmudgeon,
    This is why Conservatives were and are still against stem cell research.

    They're afraid Democrats might develop a spine.

  • stormskies on December 05, 2011 1:43 PM:

    The corporate media propaganda machines whirl on ....

  • June on December 05, 2011 1:44 PM:

    While Congressional Republicans collect a taxpayer-funded-six-figure paycheck to do nothing but f*ck around, the President is out there working his ass off to get things going IN SPITE of the declared Republican goal to do nothing until the next election cycle. That's why the Prez doesn't have any more time for handholding these absolute GOP scum.

    /end rant

  • square1 on December 05, 2011 1:47 PM:

    Good Lord, I don't always agree with Steve Benen, but at least he is coherent. Why can't the White House defend themselves with any competence?

    And Tom Harkin sounds like a jackass: "If I only dealt with my Republican colleagues only on an issue basis, I probably never would get anywhere. But I deal with them on a human basis, too."

    Really. How many Republicans has Harkin persuaded to not filibuster legislation by dealing with them "on a human basis"? If you said zero, that was the same answer that I got.

  • Gummo on December 05, 2011 1:50 PM:

    And nobody pointed out that this childish whining makes the Rethugs nothing but spoiled brats who have to be coddled and cajoled into doing their fucking jobs??

    They're supposed to be ADULTS, grown-ups who can even work with people they don't like to get stuff done FOR THE GOOD OF THE COUNTRY.

    That's their job. That's why they're there, fer crissake.

    We are so doomed.

  • Trish on December 05, 2011 1:56 PM:

    Another example of the republican pr machine in action. They take a perceived obama advantage -- in this case his willingness to reach across the aisle and compromise versus the gop's refusal to budge on anything and it's "party of no" reputation -- and try to turn it upside down. The GOP mantra is always attack a candidate's attributes and often they are quite successful at it. My favorite example is the president's reputation as a superior speaker. The GOP pr machine created the teleprompter meme and, viola, the president is no longer a great speaker, he's merely an ok reader who'd be lost without his beloved machine. Every obama accomplishment will come under attack. Expect it.

  • June on December 05, 2011 1:58 PM:

    And another thing -- re: Olympia Snowe's remark:

    “I don’t expect the president every day to be calling me or somebody else. [But] I think what you do expect is to have a team that can work through the various issues … and build a consensus.”

    Yes, we USED to expect that of the GOP - before Republicans went completely insane over the last decade. Now, on their part, we routinely expect bad faith negotiating, hostage-taking, insane demands in proportion to proposals (see: the current payroll tax cuts situation), an eagerness to deliberately take actions that harm the best interests of the nation, and a split-personality party that crafts and supports bills - then filibusters and votes against them.

    So, all I would say to Snowe at this point is, "Et, tu?

  • JMG on December 05, 2011 2:02 PM:

    If Obama said "I think Congressional Republicans are nasty jerks I wouldn't have in my home as a private citizen" he'd probably bump up five points in the polls. But he's not like that as a person. Pity

  • jjm on December 05, 2011 2:10 PM:

    I seem to recall that when Obama first took office he hosted an event, possibly a barbecue, for congressional leaders. The GOP boycotted it or turned the invitation down.

    If anyone should have 'hurt feelings' it's Obama after the pure vitriol he has endured from these monstrous egocentric babies.

  • Rathskeller on December 05, 2011 2:14 PM:

    I think the issue for many Republicans is whether or not they're going to be primaried, full stop. If cuddling with Obama in a snuggie would stop that possibility, they'd do it. But of course, the feeling towards Obama is so toxic that even a passing remark from the president that a certain GOP representative was doing a good job would cause panic in that member's offices.

  • catclub on December 05, 2011 2:14 PM:

    If George Bush was even 1/3 as polite to democratic senators it would have been in all the papers, all the time. He insulted both houses of Congress all the time and was still the big hero.

    Imagine Obama ignoring subpoenas from house and senate committees.

  • June on December 05, 2011 2:15 PM:

    I am glad to see that even as we speak, Obama is on CNN holding a press conference that is naming and shaming the GOP over this payroll tax cuts business.

  • T2 on December 05, 2011 2:15 PM:

    "there’s been no real effort to work with the Speaker." Thank God.

  • slappy magoo on December 05, 2011 2:17 PM:

    George W. Bush's 2000 "win" was considered a mandate for serious change in Washington. Dems, aside from some Blue Dems like Lieberman, were rarely consulted, aside from a "vote like we tell you to vote or we'll tell everyone you hate America...OK, we'll still tell them you hate America, but if you don't like we tell you to vote, we'll tell them you REALLY hate America" way.

    But Republicans are saying Obama isn't trying to work with them. And the media isn't saying they're wrong.

    I guess they all do it. I can't trust any of them. I'm not voting anymore...

    And that's how Republicans win.

    I know YOU all know it. Time to let everyone else know it. You'd be amazed how few do.

  • Gov't Mule on December 05, 2011 2:17 PM:

    This is why the Republicans are so mendacious. They make a ludicrous claim that ignores their own role in said complaint and come up w/ yet another in a series of ridiculous reasons why they hate President Obama. I guess the President got tired of people who, away from the cameras and the press, are cordial, but use the first opportunity to undercut any private assurances they might have offered the White House.

  • Julene on December 05, 2011 2:18 PM:

    I don't know maybe the Republicans should be voting and working on policy that they think is best for the country and then it wouldn't matter at all if Obama gave them a call, would it? Can you imagine any other workplace in America where you could say - but my boss didn't call me and tell me that they wanted this done beyond giving me the assignment. There was no lunch, no dinner, no drinks - nothing. So I just did nothing. Oh, and got a raise.

  • MuddyLee on December 05, 2011 2:25 PM:

    Maybe the White House should bypass the repubs in Congress and just deal directly with Rush, Roger Ailes, and Grover Norquist - then THEY can give the repubs their marching orders (since they already do that anyway). Seriously - how many elected Republicans - if any - spoke up when Obama's citizenship was attacked? Or when Newt started talking about Kenyan anti-colonialism (isn't anti-colonialism considered a GOOD thing in the USA anyway)?

  • g on December 05, 2011 2:31 PM:

    I don't suppose he's interested in schmoozing people who stand up during his speeches and yell "You lie!"

  • zeitgeist on December 05, 2011 2:37 PM:

    Dear Republicans:

    He's just not that in to you.

    (and neither are we)

    Distantly yours,

    Zeitgeist

  • square1 on December 05, 2011 2:42 PM:

    I wish people wouldn't blame Roll Call. There are certainly situations where reporters need to be objective and to not let objective false information get reported.

    But this is a story about relationships. There is no objective truth. It is the responsibility of the White House to have a narrative at their fingertips when Roll Call comes calling. They need biting responses:

    "Right now, Congress is less popular than some infectious diseases. That is largely because Republicans in the Senate filibuster every bill and Republicans in the House refuse to compromise."

    Or "This administration used to see Senator Snowe as a moderate Republican voice in Congress. Unfortunately, she has chosen to join Senator McConnell in nearly all of his record-breaking number of filbusters since the President was inaugurated. At this point, the President no longer sees Senator Snowe as an independent voice and, if he wants to know Senator McConnell's position on an issue, he prefers to deal with Senator McConnell directly."

    Or "If Republicans in Congress want to know why they haven't gotten anything done, they don't need to come to the White House to look in a mirror."

    Or "Americans are tired of Republicans complaining that they can't do their jobs unless they get schmoozed more. The American people didn't like it when Newt Gingrich shut down the government because he didn't like his seat on Air Force One. And they don't like it now. It is time for Republicans to grow up."

    Or "

  • Jamie on December 05, 2011 2:58 PM:

    well... when the GOP have the starting position that the Obama is not actually a citizen the relationship had troubles from the start

  • thebewilderness on December 05, 2011 3:09 PM:

    They have an astonishing number of excuses for why they are not doing their job. Pretending that they don't know what the Vice President is there for is a rather absurd one.

  • theAmericanist on December 05, 2011 3:25 PM:

    There is a great story about the function and limits of schmoozing -- about Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of the clan, who was famously ambitious for his kids, as well as himself. He had been one of the great sharks of Wall Street during the 1920s, which is why FDR selected him as the first chairman of the SEC -- precisely because he knew all the angles, and could ONLY succeed at the job (and not incidentally, open the door for his ambitions for his kids) by closing down exactly what he had been doing just a few years before.

    But it wasn't enough, of course, and Joe K continued to play an independent role, especially among the Irish-American community that naturally hated Britain and, not incidentally, were reluctant to back Britain against the growing threat of Nazi power.

    FDR didn't miss any of this, of course, and as war got closer, he realized that the BEST job he could possibly offer Joe Kennedy was ambassador to Great Britain -- with exactly the same strategic reasoning that persuaded him to make Kennedy the SEC chair.

    That would have been enough for a lesser man -- but FDR was a master at "schmoozing", and he knew what it was FOR. Sitting around a White House den (a more casual setting than the Oval Office) one evening with "Pa" Watson, his chief of staff, FDR sent for Kennedy. The President looked up from a martini, and asked Kennedy to stand over by the fire and -- 'just pull up your trousers, will you, Joe?"

    Kennedy was a seriously dignified sort of brawler, and this one struck him out of left field. But FDR insisted, pull up your pants, past your knees. "Well, Pa, you're right. He's knock-kneed."

    Kennedy was ICE. But FDR gave him that famous smile, and explained: "Joe, I think think that you might make a good Ambassador to Britain, but dammit, Pa is right: you're knock-kneed. For 150 years, American ambassadors to the Court of St. James have worn silk knee-britches, and in this time of world crisis, I just cannot have an American ambassador at the English court who looks like his knees are knocking."

    Kennedy growled that he could damn well wear long pants, and FDR turned to Watson, said: "Well, then, Pa, that settles it! Congratulations, Joe..."

    So Kennedy went to Britain... knowing who was Boss.

    THAT's how to schmooze -- and why.

  • Bless on December 05, 2011 3:38 PM:

    "Though Republicans are in a good position to hold the levers of power in both chambers come 2013..."

    Well if you let them float that one by you of course they'll see what else they can help you fall for.

  • square1 on December 05, 2011 4:45 PM:

    Hey, you gotta give theAmericanist credit. You don't often see a wingnut who can draw on a historical reference other than Neville Chamberlain's appeasement. Who knew that the Glenn Beck University covered FDR?

  • RickD on December 05, 2011 4:47 PM:

    I'm trying to imagine this story being published in 2006, with Congressional Democrats complaining that President Bush wasn't showing them enough love.

    I'm picturing such a story being roundly mocked on cable TV.

    Seems to me that the issue here is that Obama isn't being sufficiently _deferential_ to Republicans.

  • exlibra on December 05, 2011 5:44 PM:

    Dear Republicans,
    Sorry to deprive you of your prime source of entertainment, but I won't be using my head as a battering ram against a stone wall any more.
    Sincerely,
    Your President

  • Rathskeller on December 05, 2011 5:47 PM:

    theAmericanist - thanks, that was an interesting story.

    The difference, of course, is that not even one Senator can be bullied in such a manner, and that was true back when FDR was president. Even a new Representative like Joe Wilson paid no substantive price for being an ass in public to the president.

  • chi res on December 05, 2011 11:09 PM:

    The right hears whatever the far left is complaining about Obama doing, then attacks him for doing the exact opposite.

  • theAmericanist on December 06, 2011 8:54 AM:

    Rath -- you're right. Joe Kennedy depended entirely on FDR for his political future (and that of his kids), and he knew it. That was the point I was making. For the "us against the world" bullshit that the Left does (the Right does it, too; it's a characteristic of ideology), folks rarely study exactly how something like schmoozing works. If you imagine that everybody who knows something you don't is a wingnut, you're basically a friggin idjit.

    Schmoozing is essentially a kind of mutual grooming behavior, typical of mammals. Baboon troops routinely pick nits off each other, one individual reaching out to the next. It doesn't matter whether the youngest and weakest happens to be next to the leader -- even the strongest ape will meekly groom the weakest. Shallow folks (like, say, gulag) imagine that this is a demonstration of equality, but it actually demonstrates and reinforces the power dynamic.

    Chris Matthews loves to tell the story about his first few weeks as Tip O'Neill's press secretary, when he met Bob Strauss, the powerbroker who had been the head of the DNC. Matthews was pretty much a nobody at the time, barely on the introductory track at that level of politics, and eager to learn anything he could. He was blown away by Strauss' technique (note this is totally distinct from ideology): Matthews was in a Capitol hallway talking to a NY Times reporter the day after he'd met Strauss for the first time, in a situation where Matthews' credibility as an insider was on the line. Strauss -- the legendary insider -- happened to walk by.

    Now -- a lesser man would have just said hello, or nodded, and someone un-legendary at being an insider might have signaled he was willing to help with whatever message Matthews was giving to the NYT.

    Without breaking stride, Strauss grabbed the reporter's shoulder, snapped: "you're not falling for any of THIS guy's bullshit, are you?", looked back at Matthews and laughed, and was gone.

    The reporter turned back to Matthews with new respect in his eyes: gee, this kid not only knows the legendary insider Bob Strauss, but knows him well enough that they have inside jokes!

    Which is when Matthews realized how Strauss got to be legendary in his insider-itude.

    See, the deal is: FDR didn't have to persuade Joe Kennedy. He knew exactly what he wanted, so he showed him exactly how to get it -- ya gotta know who's Boss, Joe.

    Likewise, Strauss didn't even bother to find out what the issue was that Matthews was talking to the NYT about -- he may well have known, but that wasn't the point: the best thing he could have done for the kid was exactly what he DID do, which was reinforce Matthews' credibility.

    So schmoozing isn't just the superficial mutual backscratching. What really counts is the deft, light touch of LEVERAGE -- which paradoxically gets weaker when you try to push it.

    That's the lesson the Left needs to learn. Leverage is cumulative, and precise: schmoozing is just the instrument. Put it this way -- pretty much every Republican and EVERY Blue Dog Democrat bitches about earmarks and spending, but they stage news events at ribbon cuttings financed by legislation they voted against: and you're telling me that Obama has no leverage?

    I'm observing that he doesn't know how to use it, citing real examples of how it's done right.

  • MNRD on December 06, 2011 12:44 PM:

    The White House exhausted the conciliatory approach. The White House exhausted the conciliatory to an extent that drove the Democratic base crazy. The final straw was when Congressional Republicans celebrated the damage they caused to the economy during the debt ceiling scandal because it also happened to hurt the President politically.

    These Republican complaints are simply part of the overall clown show - they are no more serious than the Trump debate. At this point these Republican complaints are about as credible as it would be if Attila the Hun tried to pass himself off as the greatest peacemaker in the history of the world.

    Rob

    Rob

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