Ask an Obama Speechwriter if Obama Needs a Bigger Charm Offensive

In this 2009 White House photo, President Obama meets with former speechwriter Jon Favreau in the Oval Office.

Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

If it’s any day at all on the Internet, pundits who should know better are asking why Barack Obama isn’t working harder to win over Congress. I get the impulse, because it’s rooted in the reality that Obama doesn’t talk to members of Congress as much as they want. Toss a stick at a congressman and he’ll tell you how long it’s been since the president talked to him.

But it’s a leap from “the president should do more mingling with members of Congress” to “members of Congress will move if the president says so, because they’ve done so before.” People: There are studies on this. Mars exploration became less popular among Democrats because George W. Bush supported it. Climate change became less credible for Republicans when Obama was the one talking about it. Over at the de-Kurtz-ified Daily Beast, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau takes on the narrative; I had a separate long email exchange with Jon Lovett, another veteran of the Obama shop.

It’s absurd. Absurd. First of all, a lot of the same people making the argument that Barack Obama doesn’t, I don’t know, use the dulcet tones of his voice to seduce Congress also manage to say, maybe in the same paragraph, that he “rammed through” Obamacare, which - love it or repeal it - is without a doubt one of the most successful efforts to manage Congress in American history. I don’t remember anyone saying at that time when the bill passed that Barack Obama was too charming. The fact is, Barack Obama is, along with LBJ, among the most capable Presidents when it comes to getting important bills through Congress - fiscal stimulus, health care, financial reforms, the student loan bill (which was a huge achievement, though got a bit lost because it was passed with health reform), equal pay, among others. But just like it did for LBJ, it helps to have big majorities in both houses. (I feel like Ezra Klein has written about this, or he should have.) 

Are there situations where pressure and persuasion may work at the margins? Sure. But we all live with a sixty vote threshold in the Senate and a GOP-controlled House. So the fights aren’t often fought at the margins. The most basic and reasonable of compromises, compromises that are fair, or more than fair, by any honest measure - whether on the budget or guns or what have you - get bogged down, whether in trying to find a coalition of 60 in the Senate, which requires significant GOP support, or trying to get anything of substance through a House of Representatives that’s beholden to whatever the heck is going on between John Boehner and Eric Cantor. No administration has a perfect relationship with Congress. It’s sort of the point of the whole thing. And I’m sure there are examples where people might have done something differently in hindsight. That’s inevitable But regardless, the reason important bills don’t pass is not that the Obama administration hasn’t cracked the code, whatever Maureen Dowd has cued up on Netflix. The problem with Congress is Congress. 

As for the need for a charm offensive? Give me a break. Who among us can forget the time that a bunch of Senators, still in the afterglow of a presidential cocktail hour (with Reagan maybe?) passed a bill they didn’t support, only to wake up confused and groggy the next day, once the spell had worn off? Truth is, this is a president who has succeeded in working with Congress. There’s tons of reporting about his good relationship with, say, John Boehner. He has passed several pieces of sweeping, historic legislation, and I don’t think anyone believes that Immigration doesn’t have a good shot of being added to that list.  People are mad about a gun bill and they should be mad - at the people who voted against it. 

Are journalists going easy on Obama if they don’t blame him for inaction in Washington? Sort of, yes—but if they pine for presidential action, they’re going soft on everyone else. Late last year, for reasons that make a ton of sense, House Republicans pledged to go through regular order to pass major legislation. No more deals with the White House that would get rammed through. It’s how the system’s supposed to work, and it also leaves less kinetic action up to the president. This is fine; this is how the system is designed. Pining for the president to ram more through Congress ends up being an enormous distraction from the less-understood ways he can use executive authority to bend around Congress. It’s very good to see libertarians and liberals pointing this out when it comes to Gitmo (though Congress could also repeal the 2001 authorization of force—it won’t).