Ezra Klein responds to a New York Times article about President Obama’s chilly relationship with his fellow Democrats:
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…never names a bill that didn’t pass or a nominee who wasn’t confirmed because Obama’s 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.”
I’d probably give a little more credit to schmoozing than this. But only a very little. At the margins, there are probably times when having a good relationship with a committee chair will speed up action or provide a valuable extra vote or two on a bill or a nominee. And Obama has the perfect vehicle for doing this regularly since he loves to play golf. But for the most part Klein is right. There’s very little evidence that congressional schmoozing has more than a tiny effect on things. Members of Congress vote the way they want or need to vote, and if they respond to anyone, it’s to party leaders, interest groups, and fellow ideologues. In days gone by, presidents could coerce votes by working to withhold money from a district, or by agreeing to name a crony as the local postmaster, but those days are long gone. There’s really very little leverage that presidents have over members of Congress these days, regardless of party.
Obama is an odd duck. It’s not just that he doesn’t schmooze. As near as I can tell, he has a barely concealed contempt for Congress. He doesn’t really enjoy playing the political game, and not just because it’s gotten so rancid in recent years. Even if Republicans were acting like a normal political party these days, I still don’t think he’d enjoy it much. And yet, he spent years campaigning for the top political job in the United States. It’s a little bit of a mystery, frankly.