He's Not Here to Make Friends

If you walked into the home of an acquaintance and found yourself facing a wall of dozens of pictures of him shaking hands with powerful people, you'd probably think, "What a pompous ass. And how insecure do you have to be to put these things up on your wall? I get it, you're important. Sheesh." In Washington, however, these "brag walls" can be found all over town, particularly on Capitol Hill, where nearly every member of Congress has one.

Maybe some offices do it just because that's what everyone else does, but you'd think that if you're a senator or member of Congress, the fact that you're an important person would be self-evident, and it wouldn't be necessary to make sure everyone who comes into your office knows that you've been in the same room as presidents and other high-ranking officials. There are some commercial establishments, like your local deli, that might put up pictures on their walls with the celebrities who have stopped in, but that's an understandable marketing effort. But when it comes to individuals, the only other place I can think of that I've seen that sort of thing outside of Washington is on MTV Cribs, in the homes of athletes, actors, and musicians, who often have displays of them with other celebrities. And they, I imagine, are also desperately insecure about their importance, forever fearful that it could evaporate at any moment and they'll wind up the next Corey Feldman. So they put up the pictures of them hanging out with Tom Brady or Usher to assure themselves that they really are as big a deal as the people around them are contractually obligated to tell them.

I raise this because of an absolutely pathetic article in Politico today, detailing how Democrats on Capitol Hill aren't feeling enough love from President Obama:

The topic of Obama's relationship with his own party in Congress invariably draws raised eyebrows and did-you-hear-this-one stories.

One of the most well-connected Democrats in the capital said he came away from a recent meeting with Hill Democrats "astonished at the contempt they have for our president." The members made clear that, after largely backing Obama in his first term, they would oppose him if he tried to make cuts to entitlements in the name of deficit reduction.

Obama and his top aides generally get along well with the Senate’s Democratic leadership — though there were real tensions over the fiscal cliff compromise – but while the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer are in frequent contact with the White House, rank-and-file Democratic senators rarely hear from the president.

To bring up the topic of Obama and his old colleagues with members of Congress themselves, not a class of people lacking in pride, is often to get stared back with daggers. Hemming and hawing often take place, good-sport recollections of always hearing back from staff are brought up and occasionally come requests to go off the record. But, among some Democratic senators, there’s a willingness to put their names with their statements.

"I think they might have done more," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) when asked about the president's outreach to the Hill in the first term. "I think they might have learned more by doing more."

Now, I understand that building personal relationships with members of Congress is important, but it's not important as an end in itself, it's important because it helps the president accomplish his policy goals. To paraphrase the line spoken by a thousand reality show contestatnts, the president isn't in Washington to make friends. Are there policy implications to Obama's alleged indifference to congressional Democrats? Was there a critical bill that failed because some senators felt they weren't being massaged enough? Provisions in big bills that Obama didn't get because he couldn't fend off a fit of pique from a member of his party over the lack of invitation to a late-night poker game up in the residence? You won't find the answer in the story, because this is Politico, and they find policy questions like that to be dullsville.

In fact, a better question for a piece like this might be, if Obama does so little to massage the fragile egos on Capitol Hill, how was it that he got so much legislation passed? He did more legislatively in his first term, even with an unusually intransigent opposition, than any president since Johnson. Could it be that the non-personal factors end up being much more important than how many members of Congress get to utter the phrase, "As I told the president when I was at the White House the other day..." on a regular basis?

Comments

Asked when he had last been invited to the White House, Tester said it was in 2010, when the large class of Democratic senators elected in 2006 came down for a lunch with Obama, Biden and Emanuel.

2010... 2010.... What happened in 2010 that might have made Obama's relationship with the House less important than his relationship with the Senate.... I can't quite put my finger on it.

Your point is well taken, that this is about making deals and advancing an agenda. Democratic support for Obama in his first term? I recall more than a few examples of Democrats, and notably Tester's "Blue Dogs", pushing back against the President's agenda, slowing down legislation, creating a logjam on the PPACA that gave opponents time to organize, demagogue and almost kill the bill. Only a few months ago Tester was bragging in his campaign ads that he voted against his party and took on the President on some important issues. Now he wants an invitation to lunch?

Since 2010, with the Hastert Rule in full effect, House Democrats aren't driving much of anything. If the President brokers a deal in the Senate, pulling together 60 votes or getting the Republicans to agree not to filibuster, the resulting bill has a decent chance of becoming law. We're not in the era of Lyndon Johnson, where he was cajoling, threatening, brokering favors, and the like to pull in enough votes to pass a bill. We're in an era in which the President could work hard to get every Democrat in the House on board, and have the legislation go nowhere because he needs a majority of the Republicans in the House to support the bill before it will even come up for a vote. And it's pretty much a given that House Republicans will oppose a bill that has broad Democratic support and is backed by the President, regardless of its merit, because they find obstructionism to be good politics.

Back to Tester,

The Montanan is a prime example of the sort of moderate Democrat on whom Obama will need to lean to get legislation on guns, immigration and energy through Congress over the next four years.

No, he isn't. Because the bill won't pass unless the House Republicans agree to let it pass, and once that agreement is brokered Tester's vote becomes irrelevant.

If Obama were to spend more time socializing with members of the House, it would do little to nothing to advance his agenda. If Blue Dogs are worried about losing their seats, and want the President to reassure them that he's in their corner, perhaps the thought should have occurred to them back when the President was asking for their support on his first term initiatives, "If I say 'no', it may come back to haunt me." If the House Democrats want more invitations to lunch with the President, if they want to feel like they are major power brokers rather than an afterthought, they had best figure out how to win a majority in 2014.

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