Obama’s lack of chemistry with Congress won’t score him points

2015-01-12 08:33

When President Barack Obama sits down with eight top legislators – four from each major political party – at the White House tomorrow, there’s little expectation it will bring a new era of co-operation.

Republican leaders are already upset with the president for his recent veto threats and go-it-alone policy moves. Democratic leaders, now in the minority party in both chambers, will find themselves less relevant.

The White House dismisses any idea that the meeting is the start of a new congressional charm offensive.

Although Obama was a senator for four years before he became president, he never has had a strong rapport with members of Congress.

Legislators from both parties have grumbled for years that the Obama White House doesn’t reach out to them much or even pay enough attention to small gestures such as Christmas cards.

Occasional attempts by the White House to change that dynamic, by inviting key legislators to dinners or the like, typically have faded fast.

Obama’s first golf game with House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, came about only after the president had been asked repeatedly why he hadn’t invited a fellow lover of the game to tee off. The outing was never repeated.

Last week, the No 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn, told a home state newspaper he never had gotten a call from the president, “which is kind of amazing to me”.

Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took it as an insult when the White House issued veto threats just as lawmakers were taking the oath of office for the new Congress.

“He could have waited a few hours,” the speaker said.

While Obama has a “rock-solid” relationship with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Jim Manley, a former aide, says even they aren’t particularly friendly.

“Everybody jokes about Reid and his nasty habit of hanging up the phone as soon as he’s done with his end of the conversation, but the president’s not much better,” Manley says.

“There’s not a lot of idle chitchat.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismisses the intense interest in Obama’s chemistry with congressional leaders.

“We’re focused a little less on sort of the charm and more on the substance,” he says.

Trust and good will lubricate the legislative process and any negotiations between the Capitol and the White House. It’s possible to do a deal without them, but it’s a lot harder.

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, credits Obama for going overboard to try to build positive ties with Republicans.

“The president has always extended the hand of friendship,” she says.

“Some say too much.”

But Cornyn describes Obama as “so detached and disengaged and apparently disinterested in doing the grind work that goes along with passing legislation that it would be hard to do anything.”

It’s always nice to get along, but voices from both Congress and the White House caution against attaching too much importance to the idea.

“People read way too much into personalities and all that stuff,” says Senator Bob Corker.

“Despite what the American people think, there are a good many adults up here that understand that regardless of how you may feel personally about a situation, we have a job to do.”

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