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?

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