President Obama appeared at a loss one week ago as he stood before his press corps. “What more do you think I should do?” he snapped at a reporter, after being asked if he shared responsibility for the harmful budgetary gridlock in Washington. “I’ve offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach. And so far, we’ve gotten rebuffed.”
Those were his words. But his actions suggested he already knew there was something else he could do. Within days, he started phoning, meeting and eating with his foes, and things have been looking up ever since. Not since Obama came into office in 2009 has there been so many bipartisan vibes between Republicans and the White House. In a remarkable few days, months of rising bitterness seem to be slipping away. Temperatures have been lowered. Political rhetoric has been replaced by cagey optimism. The infuriating posturing that is the daily bread of so much Washington conversation, not to mention the campaign-style speeches of Obama in the heartland, has been largely put on hold.
House Speaker John Boehner, who has spent years whipping conservatives into outrage at the President’s behavior, has said he is “hopeful.” White House spokesman Jay Carney says the President has called the talks “very constructive and very pleasant.” Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a conservative deal maker who spent a good chunk of January publicly questioning the President’s truthfulness, has begun talking like a big deal on fiscal issues of taxation, spending and deficits could happen. “I think there are areas where we could reach common ground, I think that is possible, but it’s not going to happen over one dinner,” he said Wednesday. “This was a beginning of a process and there’s a lot of work left to do.”
In January, the President himself downplayed the usefulness of building personal bonds with his opponents in Congress. “When I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them and we have a wonderful time,” Obama said at his first press conference after the election. “But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”
But now the President has become social in a big way. He called a raft of Senators for private conversations over the weekend and on Monday, people like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, and Ohio’s Rob Portman. He dined at the posh Jefferson Hotel on Wednesday night with 12 Republicans senators, who left the event flashing thumbs-up gestures to the gathered press. On Thursday, he had lunch with the House Republican’s budget guru, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and his democratic counterpart, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen. And then there was the meeting that predated the President’s exasperation in the briefing room, with Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. “It’s one of the best meetings I’ve ever had with the President,” Graham gushed after words, a claim that was confirmed by White House aides.
Next week, he plans to keep up the dining-diplomacy by heading up to Capitol Hill, where he will meet Senate Republicans over lunch, and he has also requested a similar meeting with House Republicans. As a strategy, it is a far cry from Obama’s most recent negotiations with House and Senate leaders, which often in private meetings between himself and John Boehner, or with his staff, Vice President Joe Biden, or Senate Democrats as intermediaries.
Most of those negotiations, in the summer of 2011 and in December of 2012, ended in frustration and failure. This new spate of good vibes may go the same way in the end. Neither side has signaled a change from their negotiating position on the most difficult issues. But the spirit of the city is shifting, and the commonalities between the two parties, for the first time in several years, are taking center stage. This is how Washington once worked. The nation now waits to find out if it can work this way again.
Additional reporting by Alex Altman