The limits of schmoozing, wooing, and charm

Roll Call has a piece today arguing that President Obama has been “aloof” when it comes to congressional Republicans, and this in turn “casts doubt” on the White House’s “ability to influence Congress.”

Though Republicans are in a good position to hold the levers of power in both chambers come 2013, several rank-and-file GOP Senators told Roll Call last week that Obama hasn’t called them at all this year — and several said his standoffish relations have hurt his agenda in a chamber that is pivotal to any White House legislative successes.

Obama did have all Senate Republicans up to the White House for a cattle call earlier this year, and he engaged in extensive discussions with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on this summer’s debt deal. But direct contacts between the president and lawmakers have slowed to a trickle as he gears up for re-election, Republicans said.

A senior Republican aide said Obama has had just three brief phone calls with Boehner since unveiling his jobs package — and there’s been no real effort to work with the Speaker.

The piece goes on from there, referencing one complaint after another from Republicans who don’t know why White House officials seem to have stopped reaching out. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who was the recipient of overwhelming presidential attention in 2009 and 2010, said, “I don’t expect the president every day to be calling me or somebody else. [But] I think what you do expect is to have a team that can work through the various issues … and build a consensus.”

The White House pushed back against this, pointing to all kinds of direct engagement with lawmakers, though I’m not in a position to evaluate the West Wing’s schmoozing efforts with Capitol Hill. I am, however, comfortable arguing that the complaints are wildly off-base.

The crux of the Republican grumbling here is that interpersonal outreach matters, and that it apparently hurts their feelings when the White House doesn’t keep in touch. The underlying point seems to be that regular outreach — phone calls, chats, meals, visits, etc. — can lead to policy progress.

I can imagine a period in which this may have been true. On-the-fence lawmakers who weren’t sure about a certain bill might be cajoled, in eras past, by a dinner at the White House and an after-meal chat with the president on the Truman balcony.

But does anyone seriously believe that today’s congressional Republicans would be more cooperative if Obama periodically called them to see how they’re doing?

In his first two years, Obama really did try a lot of this. He’d regularly connect with lawmakers, and even used occasions like the Super Bowl and March Madness to invite bipartisan groups of lawmakers over to hang out. Did it encourage GOP officials to be amenable to compromise? No, actually it didn’t have any effect at all.

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, but it’s at odds with reality. Does anyone seriously believe a party that held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to crash the economy on purpose, is going to suddenly start cooperating with Obama — whose presidency they are desperate to destroy — because of routine, casual chats?

Republicans don’t respond to interpersonal outreach; they respond to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Grover Norquist, and the dictates of their radicalized ideology.