Are Obama’s Interactions with Congress Unusually Distant?

This is just a quick reaction to the commentary on last night’s State of the Union. When watching last night, I was struck by the commentators going on and on about the poor personal relations between the Obama administration and Congress. The explicit or implicit claim in this commentary seems to be the the Obama administration has fewer interactions with Congress than past administrations. The president and his staff are too disengaged, cool, etc, while in the good old days the president and his aids schmoozed members of Congress, helping reduce polarization, get things done, etc.

I’ve heard this theme discussed by DC pundits over and over. It seems especially likely to come up in State of the Union commentary, when there is a lot of discussion time to fill and inter-branch relations are salient because the president is on screen interacting with members of Congress. Last night I watched MSNBC, but I usually watch CNN for The SOTU, and I recall similar commentary there in past years. At one point last night, Chris Matthews specifically lamented that poor personal relations with Congress of the last two administrations (though Matthews was by far not the only pundit to pursue this theme). Obviously the Obama administration and Congress have big ideological disagreements. But are personal tensions or infrequent interactions between the White House and Congress really unusual?

I’m not an expert on presidential-congressional relations, but this must be a myth, right? Chris Matthews’ claim that the golden age of presidential-congressional interactions ended when Clinton left office seems wrong. The Republican Congress of Clinton’s last 6 years, shut down the government, impeached him and hounded him with continuous investigations. A portion of Republicans actually boycotted Clinton’s 1998 inaugural during the first month of the Lewinsky scandal. Even during Clinton’s first two years, when he faced a Democratic Congress, I recall Capitol Hill sources repeatedly complaining to the press that Clinton and his staff were ignoring their needs and concerns. Clinton famously failed to get the 1994 Democratic Congress to even pass a health care reform bill out of committee. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they did pass a 1990 compromise budget, but most Democrats voted against the first Gulf War and Congress forced Bush to veto a series of bills in 1992 (like the Family and Medical Leave Act) to embarrass Bush and help candidate Clinton. What about the Reagan administration, when Congress cut off aid to the Contras and then pursued hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal? Despite Chris Matthew’s recollections, House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s relationship with the Reagan administration in Showdown at Gucci Gulch is depicted as distant and cautious. Reagan’s 1981 budget passed by rolling the majority Democratic caucus in the House. But I suspect that the main difference with the current era is that O’Neill could give in to pressure from Democratic moderates to bring the bill to the floor without worrying that the more liberal members constituting the majority of his caucus would vote him out as revenge. The Carter administration had famously poor relations with the Democratic Congress. During the Ford administration, the executive branch suffered such indignities as the Church hearings. Staff members from the Ford administration, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Antonin Scalia carried bitterness against Congress and its dominance of the Ford administration through the rest of their carriers. Obviously the Nixon administration didn’t have warm relations with Congress either.

Do we have to go all the way back to the Johnson administration to find a case where the president and his staff were cozy with Capitol Hill? Perhaps it is time to stop blaming recent administrations for this. I haven’t had time to look into whether there is good research on this topic. So if you know of some, please tell me in comments here or on our Facebook page. But it strikes me as a classic case of nostalgia for golden age that (at best) has been gone for a very long time. Call me crazy, but perhaps Congress and the presidency are simply set up for conflict by the American constitutional system?

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]