The Buzz

The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Message to the president: Schmooze or lose

12/06/2013 5:08 PM

12/06/2013 5:16 PM

The story goes that in 2011, as Republicans and Democrats wrangled over budgets and debt ceilings, President Barack Obama invited House Speaker John Boehner to the White House.

This was supposed to be a casual meeting instead of the usual contentious negotiation.

Sitting together on a patio, the Republican speaker drank Merlot and chain-smoked. Obama sipped ice tea and chewed a Nicorette.

And that’s the problem. Obama wasn’t trying to connect. Bob Woodward, the renowned Washington Post reporter, told this story recently during a visit here.

The message on Obama’s part “was of distance and moral superiority,” he said.

Friday’s jobs report aside, the barrage of bad news for Obama continues, and at some point you can’t help but come to this conclusion:

Obama doesn’t like congressional Republicans, and congressional Republicans don’t like him.

What else can account for the ongoing antipathy that only adds jet fuel to gridlock?

I remember sitting in the back seat of an SUV with Obama late on a Friday night in 2006. He had just spoken to a packed house at a Topeka hotel and was off to the airport. We had some time together following his speech, which had the crowd on its feet and roaring with a memorable ferocity.

But instead of making much of an effort, as even big-time pols will do with a local reporter, Obama was suddenly quiet, distant, soft-spoken, perhaps understandably weary and seemingly wanting very much to be somewhere else.

I can imagine how Boehner feels at times.

The problem is this: Relationships are the coin of the realm in Washington, and Obama is not a relationship guy. In a town that rewards schmooze, the cerebral Obama stands off to the side. Former Kansas City mayor Mark Funkhouser was exactly the same way, and look where it got him.

Once upon a time, another House speaker, Newt Gingrich, was embroiled in a government shutdown fight with then-president Bill Clinton. Said Gingrich at the time, “I like the guy so much I want to do a deal with him.”

You can’t imagine Boehner saying that today.

Once upon a time in a divided Washington, first lady Dolley Madison invited members of Congress to her “drawing rooms,” where friend and foe alike put politics aside and mingled. Even the wicked John Randolph, the Virginia congressman who once compared the wives of his colleagues to whores, was welcome. Funny thing, it worked.

You’ve got to get along to go along.


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