Welcome to the White House

Obama reaching out to Republicans isn’t anything new. It’s just that he’s never made it work.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) , U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) leave the Jefferson Hotel after a dinner with President Barack Obama March 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama called togeher the dinner meeting with several Senate Republicans in an effort to open the lines of communication between the White House and GOP.
Sens. Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Saxby Chambliss leave the Jefferson Hotel after dinner with President Obama

Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

President Obama is reaching out to Republicans. He had dinner with GOP senators Wednesday night and he had lunch with his former rival House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan Thursday afternoon. For the moment, Friday breakfast is open, but perhaps Dick Cheney is free. Next week he will visit Republicans in the House and Senate.

How a president works with Congress and persuades lawmakers to do his will is key to the office. With President Obama it is a particularly fascinating topic because he came to office promising a special magic in forging new arrangements with his opponents and he set high expectations about his power to motivate the public if those inside-Washington arrangements didn’t flower. Many of the evaluations of Obama’s leadership seem flawed though, because they focus on whether Obama has or has not reached out sufficiently to Republicans. Embedded in the question is the idea that if you reach out, you will be successful. Nothing could be less true. It isn’t that Obama is reaching out to Republicans for the first time. It’s just that his past attempts at doing so haven’t panned out. That’s because whether a president succeeds in working with his political opponents depends on the timing, the target, and topic, not whether he is trying at all.  

The aloof president is reaching out. That was the media’s first gloss on the president’s new robust effort at networking. He had finally embraced a Truth of Washington: You must engage your opponents and work with them. Finally he’s showing leadership. Hooray!

This view is too reductionist. It’s clear that President Obama is pivoting, but the question is whether he’s doing so to take advantage of a new landscape or if he is finally embracing a simple truth of presidential leadership he long ignored. The answer is somewhere in between and it’s still evolving, but to get a clear understanding requires a sharper definition of what it means to lead when it comes to working with the opposition in Congress.

The first step in stripping away some of the fetishism about cooperation is that reaching out to your opponents is not necessarily synonymous with leadership. If it were, Republicans who are praising Obama now would not have attacked him for making promises to engage the leadership of Iran. And if you talk to your opponents when they refuse to listen or when other strategies would bear more fruit, you’re being ineffective, which is not showing good leadership at all. So it doesn’t just matter who a president meets with but also whether the environment is ripe.

Effective outreach also depends on the target. During the failed effort to negotiate a grand bargain in 2011, Obama reached out about as much as possible to House Speaker John Boehner—and Boehner reached right back. They spent many hours on the phone and together, with only their mutual longing for a cigarette to bind them. Whatever lesson Obama is learning right now about the need to speak to his opponents, it isn’t simply that he needs to have a conversation. He’s known that for a long time and he’s shown it by putting in the hours.

But the president may be learning a lesson about what kinds of Republicans he should work with. The gambit this week is to work around Republican leaders. But this isn’t the first time the president has tried that either. Early in his first term, during negotiations over the stimulus package, he reached out to Sens. Grassley, Snowe, Collins, and Specter. He even got into the horse-trading business. Specter won biomedical research and voted for the stimulus. Obama agreed to adjust the alternative minimum tax as a part of the stimulus to court Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, but it didn’t work. During the negotiations over health care reform, Obama tried a back-room deal to secure the support of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, but it failed after the public got wind of the so-called “Cornhusker Kickback.” Obama may not be very good at trying to work Congress; he may only have done it in fits and starts, but you can’t say he hasn’t tried.

In these evaluations of presidential leadership, LBJ is usually brought into the conversation. Everyone’s advice: Obama should be more like him. Johnson was a master but had large Democratic majorities in Congress, and he had special talents from his long service on Capitol Hill. Still, Lyndon Johnson would never have been caught off guard, as this White House has been recently, that senators necessary to make a deal were unaware of the president’s positions. Johnson knew what every senator needed and he worked to get it to them. Johnson also knew how to make himself look small, so that other politicians could appear to have bested him. That seems hard to imagine from President Obama.

The other historical analogy you hear in conversations about Obama’s relationship with Congress is the deal making between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Sen. Lindsey Graham referred to the deals those two were able to work out, recently.* “We’ll be Tip O’Neill, you be Reagan,” he said on Face the Nation. Great line, but Tip O’Neill had a group of Democrats in districts Reagan won who were under political pressure to work with the president. The Congress Obama faces is in the opposite position. The passion in the caucus is against the president, not for him.

The key to presidential leadership in working with Congress is not simply engaging in outreach but knowing how to calibrate it. When it comes to the issue of immigration reform, Obama has not reached out on purpose and he’s toned down his public remarks. He doesn’t want to upset the fragile bipartisan consensus that exists. On the issue of gun control legislation, Obama has kept the issue on the agenda by talking about it in public but has stayed out of the Congressional process. In these cases, restraining outreach is the best way to show leadership.

By turning his efforts to the inside game, the president is momentarily turning away from the “campaign style” tours around the country, which he had hoped would help put pressure on Washington lawmakers. Some might suggest the switch renders a final verdict on the folly of pursuing that kind of outside game. It doesn’t. Campaigning for policies is not antithetical to leadership, it is leadership. All great presidents have done this. Republicans who decry Obama’s tactics might remember that George Bush took 66 trips around the country to sell his Social Security plan. The failure of that effort highlights again that the key question should be about effectiveness. The problem is not the method itself but whether the president is using it at the right moment.

In the end, Bush’s own party scuttled his Social Security dreams. They thought they’d get killed for trying to reform the popular program. (Democrats were even more opposed.) President Obama successfully used enough outside pressure to prevail over Republicans in the most recent fight over raising the debt limit. He may, however, have proved the limitations of this tactic by using the same technique in the sequestration fight. The president’s average approval rating is now below 50 percent and he no longer towers over Republicans in polls about blame for letting sequestration happen.

By opting for cooperation over the public cudgel, Obama isn’t learning a lesson about leadership, he’s learning about what tools to apply when and how. Now we’ll get to see if he’s any good at using them.

Correction, March 8, 2013: This article originally misspelled Sen. Lindsey Graham’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)