Why the president doesn't need to be best friends with his own party in Congress – and often isn't

Presidential schmoozing only gets you so far

WASHINGTON, D.C. - They’re on the same team. They work only a couple of miles from one another. So you might think that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats would find time to get together once in a while.

But if the grumbling from the halls of Congress is any indication, it doesn’t sound like they do.

The president is “remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill,” according to The New York Times. He remains largely aloof and uninterested in partisan squabbles on Capitol Hill, much the way he was as a senator.

But does that matter? Is the president much different from predecessors who might have been better at small talk but did not exactly have a cozy relationship with members of their own party?

A leading presidential scholar is convinced “the president is not particularly oriented toward schmoozing.” George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M, says, “Whatever benefits that gets you – and I’m not sure that there are – he doesn’t receive them.”

The President with Harry Reid in 2011.

Obama’s closest allies doubt any of that will change before he leaves office.

The Wire helpfully compiled a collection of stories since shortly before the 2008 election along the theme of Obama “not having any friends” in Congress.

Beyond the atmospherics, Edwards says there’s not much consequence from the president keeping his distance. And he’s not alone in thinking that.

“What really counts,” he said, “is do Democrats vote for the president’s policies? And they do.”

When individual Democrats have turned their back on Obama’s viewpoint, Edwards contends, it has more to do with those in competitive seats or core differences in ideology. There’s no inclination that they’re “just sitting on their hands.”

Congressional Democrats are much more frustrated with Republicans than they are with Obama, Edwards says, and that partisan divide is of greater consequence than any differences among Democrats.

No matter how much schmoozing Obama did, he said, if, for example, the president engaged in an aggressively interventionist foreign policy that liberals opposed, “would they say I trust Barack because he’s my buddy?”

Congressional Democrats do seem to trust him at helping them raise money. The American Prospect says that as of mid July, the president had attended 393 fundraisers while in office, not as many as Bill Clinton did but much more than George W. Bush attended. While some of them were for his own reelection, many of them were for other Democrats.

There is a long history of grumbling about schisms between the president and his erstwhile allies in Congress. Eight years ago the Times published a similar lament from Republicans about Bush.

Spool back further and things don’t seem so rosy then either. Clinton excelled at small talk and enjoyed courting Democrats, but it’s hard to overlook actions that led to his impeachment and that put his fellow Democrats in the awkward position of trying to defend him.

Ronald Reagan was also known for his warm personality, but Edwards remembers writing a transition report as George H.W. Bush was heading to the presidency, in which he wrote in terms of the White House’s relations with Congress, “we’ve never seen it worse.”  

LBJ with Abe Fortas.

Edwards considers the whole notion of presidential arm-twisting, especially within the president’s party, overstated. That even goes for Lyndon Johnson, who was particularly vehement in persuading legislators to do what he wanted, first as Senate Majority Leader, then as president.

But it’s difficult to measure just how Johnson was able to turn the tide on something because of his persuasive abilities, Edwards says.

Mostly what Johnson did was exploit large Democratic congressional majorities, he says. The party picked up two Senate seats and 37 House seats in the 1964 elections – then gave back those gains and more in 1966.

Among the prominent legislation Congress passed and Johnson signed into law during the intervening two years were those that created Medicare, established federal funding for college scholarships, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

Not coincidentally, Obama’s signature legislative victory, enacting the Affordable Care Act, occurred when he too, had a large Democratic majority in Congress.

The White House undoubtedly remains in contact with congressional Democrats, Edwards says. Regardless of whether the president is schmoozing with them himself, his staff is in touch, and “that’s adequate.” 

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