Dinner Theater: Obama’s Hill Outreach and the Limits of Presidential Power

Meals and merlot can soothe raw relationships, but they won't soften Republican opposition to higher taxes, or Democrats' determination to preserve entitlement programs.

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KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

President Barack Obama departs the U.S. Capitol after meeting with Senate Democrats in Washington March 12, 2013.

Barack Obama is a homebody. He likes to have dinner with his family at 6:30 p.m. He hits the golf course with the same cluster of trusted aides. He vacations each year with the usual close friends. Such habits are regarded by members of both parties, who enjoy being fussed over and wooed, as one cause of Congressional gridlock.

Obama often scoffs at this idea, but even the leader of the free world must genuflect now and then. And so Obama braved a spring drizzle Tuesday afternoon to break bread with Senate Democrats in the Mansfield room on the second floor of the Capitol. It was the first of three consecutive days Obama will be on the Hill, and it follows a week in which Obama picked up the check for dinner with a dozen Republican senators at a swank D.C. hotel, and invited the House’s respective budget gurus, Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Chris Van Hollen, to share sea bass at a White House lunch. Then he spent part of the weekend sweet-talking conservatives over individual phone calls.

The schmoozing marks the most sustained period of outreach since negotiations toward a grand bargain fizzled two summers ago. It is, in part, an effort to rekindle those discussions. This summer, another deadline to raise the debt ceiling presents a new narrow window to seal a sweeping deficit-reduction deal that combines tax and entitlement reform. In the nearer term, Obama has a raft of legislative priorities to steer through a bitterly divided Congress, including new gun laws and immigration reform. Gathering with allies and opponents alike can help pave the way for those priorities. “We welcome it,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “I think the outreach he’s been doing is a good thing. I’m all for it.”

(MORE: Barack Obama: America’s (Not So Great) Golfer-in-Chief)

But there is also, perhaps, a cynical component to Obama’s decision to suddenly lavish his opponents with attention. His poll numbers are sagging. Sequestration is now the status quo. The limits of Obama’s outside game, a strategy that calls for applying pressure on Congressional Republicans by pressing his case to the rest of the country, have been laid bare.

The other player — inside and outside these heavily guarded lunches and dinners — is the media. In a way, these meals are little more than offerings to the Beltway’s high priests and their constant clamor for comity. “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” a senior White House official groused to National Journal’s Ron Fournier. “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.” (At a briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney disavowed the sentiment. “It does not represent the president’s view. It does not represent the White House’s view,” he said.)

Indeed, more than 100 reporters staked out the Tuesday lunch, thronging beneath faded oil paintings in the ornate hallway outside the Senate chamber. Reporters raised their cameraphones and craned their necks at the sound of approaching footsteps. When Obama arrived with a customary smile and “hey, guys,” dozens dutifully tapped out tweets. These summits haven’t come along often enough to render them routine.

(MORE: President Obama Speaks at Gridiron Dinner)

Democrats said the discussion was productive, ranging from budgets to immigration and healthcare to drones. “We had a very good conversation,” said New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. “He thinks we’re making good moves on immigration, and he feels very positive we’re going to get that immigration bill,” added Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.

Will all the outreach lead to anything? Developing relationships with opponents can’t hurt. Ryan and Obama have sparred in public many times, for example, but before dining at the White House last week, the Wisconsin Congressman said he and the President had never shared a private discussion “that lasted more than two minutes.”

But this isn’t the first time Obama has tried to schmooze his way to solutions. In January 2009, the popular President-elect trekked to the suburban house of conservative columnist George Will for a summit with conservative pundits. They emerged gushing about the promise of the young President. You remember how that turned out. Meals and merlot can soothe raw relationships, but they won’t soften Republican opposition to higher taxes, or Democrats’ determination to preserve entitlement programs. Around the time Obama was settling into his motorcade for the quick jaunt back to the White House, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid announced that Republicans were holding up a bipartisan measure to ensure that government will remain funded when the current stopgap bill expires on March 27. All this dinner theater may be necessary — even helpful — but it’s hardly sufficient for the big deal Obama wants.

MORE: State of the Union: Obama Calls for Economic Growth, Action on Gun Violence

25 comments
drudown
drudown

Give me a break already. 

The GOP has unapologetically asserted its primary "strategy" is obstructing any meaningful change during the Obama era.

Talk about writing an article while disregarding facts already in evidence.

DREGstudios
DREGstudios

Will we ever see bipartisan politics in our country again?  The fringe element within the Republican Party has pushed them all to the far right of the isle where they’ve gridlocked our government for two years now.  Will the next two be any different?  They’ve been very public about their main goal being to block and bamboozle the President’s every move when the Middle Class NEEDS relief.  It takes many hands to paint the Blackface on Obama.  See my visual report of his makeup session at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/10/bamboozling-obama.html

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

What a waste of the President's time, to have to butter up those big egos in Congress.  Aren't they supposed to be grownups?  It reminds me of the State of the Union Address when they were all tripping over themselves to be photographed standing next to him, and the next week running him down in the media.  It's not like he has nothing else on his plate.

When are those  Republicans going to grow up?

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Limits of Presidential Power..."

What?!!! To listen to the Beltway press, you'd think that the President was God Almighty, able to create all law and public policy. 

commonsenseduh
commonsenseduh

Who has created all these crisis's; given them catchy name phrases; in order to scare us the citizen? It has been the Republican run Congress that is who.  It is a ploy to panic the public and perhaps get more people on their side. Don't you find it interesting that they can take off during a crisis as if they don't care about the country they also live in? America has always had debt; we also have to remember we are in a war; have been for some time; we are not going to be in the black during a time such as this. Quit buying into these fake crisis's they are constantly coming up with; they want you the voter to panic and perhaps swing your vote in the process... if the Republican claim there is money to constantly give tax breaks to the rich; then we are not in such a crisis are we? Don't take the candy from the strange man trying to sell you on our world collapsing; it isn't going to happen. Paul Ryan is the worse of them all, if Wisconsin can without interference of vote tampering by the one and only Koch brothers; his time in office is limited. The more money that gets slipped into the pockets of from special interests the more fear tactics will be pushed into the media to scare the people; this is how they (corporate America and Congress) can control you if you let them.... it is all a game to them and the sooner the people realize this the better....once you quit fearing and believing these idiots the better; we have the power and the people come first over any corporation even though many would like to see that changed; it never will change.

meddevguy
meddevguy

Less than a week after the well-publicized dinner with selected Republicans, he is throwing them under the bus. Is anybody buying that the "conversations" were anything but yet another campaign stunt? That the issue here is faaaaaar from the economy or jobs?

OK, we get it that the President is absolutely determined to prove the Republicans are an evil band that does not deserve reelection because they won't rubber-stamp the President's agenda and legacy?

ucjb
ucjb

Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

chikkenhawk
chikkenhawk

@TIME I think it's just another opportunity for Republicans to try and score political points

bobell
bobell

What you omit, Alex, is the expressions of surprise from many attendees when they learn what Obama is actually proposing. It's now clear and undisputed that the Republican leaders in both houses have given their troops no idea what Obama's proposals are.  That leaves open the obvious question of why the rank and file are apparently too uninterested in governance to find out for themselves. But if there is one encouraging sign in all this, it is that Congress may eventually stop being the national center of low information.

Of course, nothing says they have to like what they're learning. But at least they'll be reacting to something resembling reality. And that's a Good Thing, isn't it?

fantom1
fantom1

Hey, We the People are paying for all this bull. This is why we have a 17 trillion dollar debt, Get off your tiffs and earn your gigantic pay checks. We the people have paid and paid so you bufoons can run up debt and chaos. All the Harvard, MIT and any other intellegent economist out there say we can't go on like this! We are going to have an economic collapse. So what is your plans for that? Retirement!! We the people are discusted with all of you politicians. Our policies suck!! What happen to common sense? 17 trillion in debt, North Korean kid threatens us,we sanction them, Iran lies to our face, we sanction them, we give billions more than the "sequestration" to countries that burn our flag. We spend more money than we make and our president thinks more spending is the answer. Mentally ill criminals kill our teachers and kids and our elected officials blame the guns. 11 million criminals are hiding within our boundries and you guys are looking for a way to make them citizens (Voters). Inflation is here,look at your grocery bill, and gas prices. All this and you guys are waisting our money on non productive lunch that cost more than most of us eat for a week.  We the people have made some drastic mistakes at the voting poles and we the people are going to pay, for several generations. Here's an Idea, Stockpile food, start a garden and buy an assult rifle. Your going to need it to keep 11 million illegal alliens out of your garden!

outsider
outsider

Easy to ridicule him, but the GOP is destroying the government, and lying about the deficit to protect big business.

The dems re guilty too (of pandering); but are no where near as bad as the repubs.

The GOP lost, but don't act like it. There is no more respect for the nation, nor the people.

The GOP have made it about them, and only them

MichaelTJohnson
MichaelTJohnson

Too little. too late...   He will be known as the Shovel Ready, Food Stamps POTUS  and for the lavish life style he chose to live 

So much for trying to unite the races, or bringing work to both white and black people who are struggling.

Nothing to tame the problem of so many children born out of wedlock    

Welcome to the new Greece

CameronGrey
CameronGrey

He will not "be picking up any checks", the tax payers will.  Lets be clear about that.

drudown
drudown

@DREGstudios 

These purported "factions" in the GOP are a pretext to assign "blame" when, in reality, the GOP is a lock-step "sign your mind away" sell out party. There's no conviction, no principles. It's just one big charade masquerading as a contest of principles. 

drudown
drudown

@shepherdwong 

The GOP's stilted and admittedly skewed assessment of President Obama may be aptly summarized by the old adage: "success has a thousand [GOP] fathers but [America's] failures are [President Obama's] orphan.

drudown
drudown

@commonsenseduh 

What I find most disheartening is the GOP's utter lack of regard for how even its idle threats to, say, "shut down the government" adversely affect the People and our diplomacy with the larger world that contains us. 

drudown
drudown

@meddevguy 

I don't know what's more laughable. You implying that it is our POTUS that is trying to brand republicans as "evil" (i.e., as opposed to vice versa) or your ostensible refusal to take ownership of the GOP policies that led to our alleged economic woes, e.g., "outsourcing" leads to layoffs and increased welfare dependency...just as the Bush Tax cuts and two Arab occupations leads to an unprecedented fiscal shortfall. 

Oh, I forgot that "deregulating" Wall St. leads to massive bailouts and the Nanny State the GOP purports to loathe. 

reallife
reallife

@bobell  you must be part of the white house staff, right?  i mean you can't be THIS dumb

lapazjim
lapazjim

@fantom1 Couldnt agree with you more!! What you must look at though is that Obama and Politicians are above aanything and everything in their eyes.They can spend as much money on themselves as they want while they cut monies to other parts of government. How much do you think Obamas trips overseas costs the taxpayer just for him to go rub noses?? Quite allot!! Can we afford it? No not really!! Then you have Obama and the Congress taking off for a ten day break when they were faced by the sequester. Remember they did this for the Fiscal Cliff also!! This is just a way that they feel about problems like this - they dont give a damn as long as they arent affected personally by it.To hell with the Americans it does affect and in their opinion its ok to watch people starve and live in  the streets.What kind of people have we put in political office??People who do nothing and want to be paid for doing nothing!! Obama is not the total problem!! Its the system and the people in it that is the problem.Maybe its time for a change in DC.We should fire every one of these people and start from scratch.New blood means new ideas that will be considered and discussed.It is time to change to politicians that actually work for the betterment of the country and not themselves!!!

Watch what happens now!! These politicians will most likely vote themselves a raise when others are told they will take a 20% cut in pay.This is how they think! These are individuals who believe in one thing and one thing only: The needs of the few(them) outweigh the needs of the many(everyone else). Kind of a p-poor attitude,nut unfortunatley thats the way it is!!!!

bobell
bobell

@fantom1 "All the Harvard, MIT and any other intellegent economist out there say we can't go on like this!"

No, actually they don't.  A few tweaks and some stimulus and we're on the road to continuing deficit reduction.  I say "continuing" because it's already in progress.

Watch something other than Fox News and see for yourself.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@drudown @shepherdwong The GOP are manifest liars. The problem is a political press that treats every problem as something that should/must be solved by the President, even those where the President has practically no functional role to play, except to sign a Congressionally-passed bill into law. It gives the public the wrong idea of whom to hold to account, beside being practically delusional in concept.

bobell
bobell

If you mean that it's "dumb" to trust any Republican to do the right thing even when they know what's actually going on in the world, I find myself in considerable sympathy with your view. But just as even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn, so I think that maybe a small but crucial number of Republicans may get a sufficient glimpse of the truth to support Obama's efforts to boost economic recovery while keeping the deficit under control.  I mean, we can always hope, right?

[Yes, tongue firmly in cheek.]

fantom1
fantom1

You will need to borrow some money for stimulus, they spent all the other borrowed money on the last stimulus.  We have not come close to starting deficit reduction.   Try watching the Real News Network  and I don't watch FOX or ABC, CBS, MSNBC or any of the other bias networks.  I saw on the science channel that if you don't watch the news and don't read the newspaper you will live longer! Something to do with Stress :)