Official White House Photo
President Obama shares a drink with Joe Biden, John Boehner, John Kasich after playing a round of golf in June 2011.
Ron Fournier has some advice for President Obama: to have a "great presidency," he's going to have to get better at "schmoozing."
For Obama, learning how to schmooze could mean the difference between a good and great presidency. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (to name just a few) were masters at building relationships that furthered their political aims. They dined and drank with lawmakers, and they ventured to Capitol Hill out of respect. Johnson was an aggressive phone-caller. Roosevelt mixed cocktails for guests. Clinton flattered House Speaker Newt Gingrich. [...]
At the start of his second term, one wonders less about Obama's fitness than his willingness: Why doesn't he do more to build and maintain the relationships required to govern in era of polarization?
If this advice sounds familiar, it's because Fournier is on well-trodden ground -- Jon Meacham, David Brooks, and Bob Woodward have all urged Obama to celebrate the efficacy of schmoozing. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) has advised, "The president's got to start inviting people over for dinner. He's got to play golf with them. He has to pick up the phone and call and say, 'I know we disagree on this, but I just want to say -- I heard it was your wife's birthday or your kid just got into college.' He has to go build friendships."
What I find troubling about this advice isn't the repetition, but rather, the partisan realities that make the suggestion useless.
At a certain level, I can appreciate why the media establishment finds the guidance compelling -- Fournier, Meacham, Brooks, Woodward, et al, have been around Washington long enough to have seen plenty of presidents in both parties find success by cultivating personal relationships with would-be rivals. Under the norms of American politics, this model makes sense. I'll gladly concede there have been times at which lawmakers were on the fence before a big vote, and a president could gently apply pressure with a White House dinner invitation and an after-meal chat on the Truman balcony.
But the advice is predicated on a faulty assumption: that one of the major parties hasn't been radicalized and that the old rules still apply.
We've discussed this before, but since the argument is still kicking around, let's recap why schmoozing isn't the solution.
First, let's note that Obama has invested some effort in this. The president has used events like the Super Bowl and March Madness to invite bipartisan groups of lawmakers over to hang out, hoping to develop a rapport. In May 2011, Obama invited a bipartisan group to the White House, not for a meeting or policy negotiations, but as part of "a get-to-know-you effort in the spirit of bipartisanship and collegiality." Republicans accepted the invitation -- and soon after launched the debt-ceiling crisis, threatening to hurt the nation on purpose unless Obama met non-negotiable demands.
So much for schmoozing.
And why doesn't interpersonal outreach work? I suspect it's because Republicans have reached an ideological extreme unseen in modern American history. It's a quantifiable observation, not a subjective one. Even if GOP policymakers were inclined to work with Obama, they realize that they'd be punished soon after by a primary challenge -- and they know this to be true because it's happened more than a few times in recent years (look up names like Crist, Specter, Bennett, Lugar, etc.).
Let's return to the thesis presented earlier this year by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein: "[W]e have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party."
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges.
"Both sides do it" or "There is plenty of blame to go around" are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.
This morning, Fournier argued, in defense of his thesis, that "every president" has had to deal with "extremists." That's true. But every president hasn't had to deal with an entire political party that, statistically speaking, is the most ideologically extreme since the dawn of the modern American party system.
What's more, note how this extremism manifests itself in practical terms. John Boehner has declared in recent years, "This is not a time for compromise," and "I reject the word" compromise. Mitch McConnell has said several times that defeating President Obama, not helping Americans, his top "priority," and that he deliberately refused to consider bipartisan proposals, even ones that he liked and approved of, in order to advance his larger partisan cause.
For his part, Obama has frequently adopted GOP measures as his own, in the hopes of advancing bipartisanship, only to find Republicans opposing their own proposals. Indeed, just this week, the president nominated a Republican for a top post in his cabinet, and the fiercest opposition is coming from -- you guessed it -- the GOP.
This isn't the kind of problem that can be remedied with backslapping and friendly chats.
As I've argued before, the notion that schmoozing will lead to progress rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.
It's a pleasant enough fantasy, and I wish it were true, but everything we've seen over the last four years points to the limits of schmoozing. GOP leaders respond to unyielding primary voters, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh, not interpersonal outreach from a president they've tried to undermine at every turn.