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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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.”

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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.

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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.

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