Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Catch of the Day

I didn't get around to this one yesterday, but you know who earned one? Barack Obama, for batting aside a Jackie Calmes question about whether he socializes enough. After first explaining that "I like a good party" (which, true or not, sounded about as convincing as Graham Chapman's colonel protesting that "nobody likes a good laugh more than I do), Obama continued with a very nice riff on how presidenting really works.

I'm going to put the whole long thing below the fold, but the key quote? "You know -- and the reason that, you know, in many cases, Congress votes the way they do, or talks the way they talk, or takes positions and negotiations that they take -- it doesn’t have to do with me, it has to do with the imperatives that they feel in terms of their own politics, right?" Exactly.

Kevin Drum was pretty good on this, too, although his emphasis on the GOP as "zealots" is only part of the story. Even if Republicans were perfectly willing to cut deals, it's highly unlikely that Obama's (alleged) standoffishness would dissuade them from it.

The last bit of Obama's answer -- in which he hopes that the American people will rise up and demand Congress to cut deals -- isn't great; in real life, most people don't care about most issues, and the ones most likely to get all riled up are the partisans who are as likely to push their politicians away from compromise as they are to demand a reasonable deal. But overall, Obama gives about as good an answer on this one as possible. Now, if only reporters would start to believe politicians -- and scholars who study the presidency -- who have been telling us for decades that schmoozing just isn't all that important.

Full transcript of the answer:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: [...] With respect to this truism about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I’m -- I’m a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party. And you know, the truth is that, you know, when I was in the Senate, I had great relationships over there, and up until the point that I became president, this was not an accusation that you heard very frequently.

I think that -- I think that really what’s gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington or difficulties in negotiations just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy, some very sharp differences in terms of where we stand on issues. And you know, if you think about, let’s say, myself and Speaker Boehner, I like Speaker Boehner personally. And you know, when we went out and played golf, we had a great time, but that didn’t get a deal done in 2011. You know, when I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time -- (scattered laughter) -- but it doesn’t prevent them from going under the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.

You know -- and the reason that, you know, in many cases, Congress votes the way they do, or talks the way they talk, or takes positions and negotiations that they take -- it doesn’t have to do with me, it has to do with the imperatives that they feel in terms of their own politics, right? They’re worried about their district. They’re worried about what’s going on back home. I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that, given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn’t look real good socializing with me. Charlie Crist down in Florida, I think, testifies to that, and I think a lot of folks say, well, you know, if we look like we’re being too cooperative or too chummy with the president, that might cause us problems. That might be an excuse for us to get a challenge from somebody in a primary. So that tends to be the challenge.

I promise you, we invite folks from Congress over here all the time. And I -- and when they choose to come, I enjoy their company. Sometimes, they don’t choose to come, and that has to do with the fact that I think they don’t consider the optics useful for them, politically.

And -- and ultimately the way we’re going to get stuff done -- personal relationships are important, and obviously I can always do a better job, and the nice thing is, is that now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway. (Laughter.) So I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with or something, OK, I -- because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house.

Q: (Off mic.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: So maybe -- maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.

But my suspicion is, getting the issues resolved that we just talked about, the big stuff -- whether or not we get sensible laws passed to prevent gun violence, whether or not America’s paying its bills, whether or not we get immigration reform done -- all that’s going to be determined largely by where the respective parties stand on policy and, maybe most importantly, the attitude of the American people. Now if the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes; if -- you know, if -- if -- if they reject sort of uncompromising positions or sharp partisanship or always looking out for the next election, and they reward folks who are trying to find common ground, then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that will be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick-in- the-mud.


  1. Schmoozing is irrelevant to getting deals done? What other explanation do we have for the continual growth of the golf course industry in the US? What Drum calls the "hoary" notion of the importance of schmoozing is most famously illustrated in the legend of Tip O'Neill, Ronald Reagan, many Friday night poker games, and TEFRA. There was no schmoozing involved in crafting that important legislation? (What else do people do at Friday night poker games?)

    I'm not an expert, but it is remarkable that Obama dismisses poor negotiation results as "Republicans will just do what Republicans do". Wasn't the point of Neustadt that a President is supposed to get frenemies to row together with him? I suspect Neustadt was too professional to use a term like "schmooze", but how else do we generate alignment from those otherwise opposed?

    Not that this is Obama's fault; its kind of hard to get Boehner over for weekend poker when the dude is back in his district every Thursday night. But I find it a bit disappointing that Obama treats his political opponents as "black boxes", treating their positions, which historically are the open for negotiations and, well, schmoozing, as if that's their final word. Seems a bit defeatist and unrealistic from the Prez.

    1. It's not that "schmoozing" is irrelevant its that things like party dynamics and who is in the majority are much much much more important. The idea that you can transcend tangible political realities like divided government or the fear that GOP politicians have of being labeled a RINO by plying people with food and drink is just silly. "Schmoozing" matters, but other structural realities matter a hell of a lot more.

    2. Two pushbacks: first, its a cherished axiom of the Plain Blog that the premise "This time its different!" is inherently highly suspect. You may be right that the current crop of Republicans is constitutionally more afraid of being labelled RINOs than O'Neill's lads were of being labelled (DINOs), but that general conclusion runs counter to orthodoxy back here, so it seems to me it needs stronger support than conventional wisdom.

      Even if its true that the RINO-fearing Republicans are "worse" (whatever that means) than the DINO-fearing Democrats, so what? Is there a handicap (mangling analogies) in Neustadt for the difficulty of finding common ground with one's frenemies?

      It wasn't the highballs at poker that led to TEFRA (at least...its not supposed to be!) Surely it was the mutual trust between Reagan and O'Neill that arose from those experiences. If its true that the current environment, beyond the ease of plane trips back home, makes such things impossible: I'd be quite surprised.

  2. Representatives have three priorities:

    1. Get Re-elected
    2. Get Re-elected
    3. Everything else.

    With the highly gerrymandered districts, most representatives from either party have relatively little to fear from opposite-party challengers. Their real worry is primaries.

    That worry ensures that polarization will continue to increase, and that departures from the party line will be few and far between.

    In this environment, I can't see that informal relationships make a particle of difference.


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