A well-timed charm offensive

A WELL-TIMED CHARM OFFENSIVE…. In recent weeks, some prominent political voices, including David Brooks and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) argued President Obama needs to schmooze more. Bloomberg, in particular, argued, “The president’s got to start inviting people over for dinner. He’s got to play golf with them… He has to go build friendships. That’s what an executive’s job is, and the president is a people-person. He knows how to deal with people.”

I’ve argued that this suggestion is a little silly, but it seems the president took it to heart. Last week, Obama invited the bipartisan leadership of Congress over 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.” Members accepted the invitation.

The dinner was last night, and as it turns out, was very well timed.

President Obama told members of Congress on Monday that because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, America on Sunday “experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.”

Making brief remarks at a dinner whose aim had been to bring members from both parties to the White House for a purely social dinner, Mr. Obama said the coincidence of the successful raid the day earlier made the occasion “especially fitting.”

The president said he was mindful of the tough debates likely to occur in the months ahead, but said that “several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together this year as an American family.

“Last night was one of those moments,” he said.

Obama added that he sees bin Laden’s demise as an opportunity for some political healing. “I know that that unity that we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years, and I have no illusions about the difficulties, the debates that will have to be engaged in in the weeks and months to come,” he said. “But I also know there have been several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together as an American family, whether it was the tragedy in Tucson or, most recently, our unified response to the terrible storms that have taken place in the South.

“Last night was one of those moments. And so tonight it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face.”

It was a social gathering, but the president nevertheless received a standing ovation from attendees.

I’ll concede that the timing couldn’t be much better. The president, by all appearances, genuinely wants policymakers to find some common ground and work together with a sense of common purpose. If killing bin Laden offers an amorphous boost to the national psyche and inspires a renewed sense of unity and optimism, then sure, it’s an opportunity.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I’d still recommend keeping expectations low. The differences between the parties is just too great and the partisan divisions run too deep. As Paul Krugman recently explained, “The point is that the two parties don’t just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes, with Republicans in particular having a stable of supposed experts who reliably endorse whatever they propose. So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where’s the common ground?”

I don’t blame the president for trying, but when it comes to Washington dysfunction, I’m not sure if anything can help.