The other day, the New York Times published a long article on President Barack Obama's miserable relationship with Congress, particularly the members of his own party. The point of the article is that Obama doesn't put much effort into building personal relationships with congressional Democrats, and as a result they're rather disgruntled with him, which could make the remainder of his presidency more difficult. It's a good example of how, in its facts, a piece of journalism can be perfectly true, even revealing, and yet be completely misleading in its implications. Ezra Klein gave it the necessary dismantling:
Obama does see socializing with Hill Democrats as a chore. But there's a lot that Obama sees as a chore and commits to anyway. The presidency, for all its power, is full of drudgery; there are ambassadors to swear in and fundraisers to attend and endless briefings on issues that the briefers don't even really care about. The reason Obama doesn't put more effort into stroking congressional Democrats is he sees it as a useless chore…
The Times article goes further than most in getting Hill Democrats on the record—or at least near the record—voicing their frustrations with Obama. But it never names a bill that didn't pass or a nominee who wasn't confirmed because Obama doesn't spend more time on the golf course with members of Congress. The closest it comes is...not very close. "In interviews, nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers and senior congressional aides suggested that Mr. Obama's approach has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office."
This is ridiculous. There are no issues erupting at home or abroad where the problem is that House or Senate Democrats won't vote with the president. There's no legislation of importance to President Obama's legacy that would pass if only House Democrats had spent more time at the White House. I've listened to a lot of Democratic members of Congress complain about Obama's poor relationships on the Hill. Each time, my follow-up question is the same: "What would have passed if Obama had better relationships on the Hill?" Each time, the answer is the same: a shake of the head, and then, "nothing."
Klein goes on to note that because of increasing polarization in Congress, Barack Obama actually enjoys more unified support from Democrats in Congress than any president since anyone has been keeping track of these things. And it goes without saying that no amount of friendliness would ever get today's Republicans to vote with him on anything. So why are we hearing the complaints now?
A few reasons. The first is that we're six years into the presidency, so the frustrations may have just built up to the point where Democrats feel more comfortable expressing them to reporters. Barack Obama isn't running again, so they may be more free to criticize him without feeling like they're imperiling an important upcoming election.
But more than anything else, I think this is about ego. Maybe not entirely, but in large part. If you've even been in a member of Congress's office, you've probably seen the "brag wall," covered with dozens of pictures of the member with important people. That almost all of them feel the need to put up those pictures testifies to the combination of rampaging self-importance and crippling insecurity that is the occupational hazard of every politician. No one's more important than the president, and so few things validate your own importance more than your personal contact with him. They all want to be able to tell people—their colleagues, their constituents, TV audiences—about what they told the president last time they were hanging out with him, whether it was how they'll be there to support him or how they think he's dead wrong and told him so right to his face.
I agree with Kevin Drum that it might help, but only a little, if Obama put more effort into schmoozing members of Congress. The trouble is that the return on the investment of his time and effort is infinitesimal, particularly at this point, when there will be no more big legislative initiatives in the remainder of his presidency (barring a Democratic takeover of the House in November, of which there's almost zero chance). Even if it might smooth things over, is it really worth the time?
But you know what Barack Obama does do for congressional Democrats? Raises money for them. A lot of it. As of the middle of July he had attended a total of 393 fundraisers while in office, or about one every five days. That's not as many as Bill Clinton did, but it's substantially more than George W. Bush attended. Some of those were for his own reelection, but many of them, including every single one he's done in the last year and a half, were for other Democrats.
Given the fact that he famously dislikes the gladhanding aspects of politics, it can't be much fun. But it's something where an investment of his time is actually useful. So if he doesn't want to spend too much other time socializing with members of Congress, well, there are worse things we could say about a president.