President Obama is again extending a conciliatory hand to Republicans in what some of his supporters are calling a "charm offensive." Recently, Obama admitted privately to GOP congressional leaders that he was remiss in not fully engaging with them in the past, and pledged to do better. Among his plans are to phone and meet with them regularly, to invite them to his Camp David retreat for some quality personal time, and to figure out other ways they can get to know each other.
But does he seriously think that playing nice with his adversaries will change their ideology? Not likely. GOP leaders in the House, including incoming Speaker John Boehner and his key deputy Eric Cantor, reached their current positions precisely because they opposed Obama relentlessly. They aren't about to back away now. In fact, it was only two days after Obama's smiley-face meeting with them November 30 at the White House that Boehner had a two-word description for Democratic maneuvering on extending the Bush administration's tax cuts: "chicken crap." So much for civility.
Obama is now embroiled in a battle with his liberal base over the new economic package that he worked out with congressional Republicans—to temporarily extend all the Bush administration's tax cuts, lower payroll taxes, and expand unemployment benefits. This agreement was the result not of schmoozing but of hard-headed calculations by all sides as to what was in the public's interest and what was in their own political interest, according to strategists from both parties. And there is serious doubt that any amount of personal engagement can reduce liberals' anger over what they consider a betrayal by Obama of their principles. Only substantive changes in policy will do that.
Bill Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who advised President Clinton, says "personal relationships can make a difference" but only on the margins. "If you have no personal relationship with somebody, it makes it easy to demonize," Galston adds. But the differences between Democrats and Republicans appear to be deeper than they were in the 1990s, when Clinton, a Democrat, successfully worked with GOP legislators on issues ranging from deficit control to welfare reform. Today's polarization will make stalemate more likely on decisions about taxes, spending, healthcare, entitlement reform, climate change, immigration, and relations with Russia, according to strategists of both parties.
In addition, Obama, with his natural reserve, is simply not the "people person" that Clinton was. In some ways, Obama is "the polar opposite of Bill Clinton," says Galston. Clinton was "a compulsive reacher-outer" who drew energy from dealing with people, while Obama prefers to stay more aloof, Galston says. Obama is amiable and pleasant in one-on-one settings or in small groups, his associates say, but he rarely lets his guard down or extends himself personally, except with his closest friends and family—and that circle is very small.
These impressions apparently have sunk deep into the electorate. A dozen members of a focus group in suburban Philadelphia last week expressed disappointment in Obama's leadership, particularly in how he is communicating. Most of the group had voted for Obama in 2008, but half agreed with one participant's assessment that "he doesn't have the common-man connection. He doesn't know how to engage the people any more." The session was conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
What would help Obama more than schmoozing is to convey a clearer message about his objectives and the overall rationale of his presidency. During the 2008 campaign, his powerful mantra was hope and change. Today, there's no compelling narrative. One moment he talks about drawing firm lines against conservative policies on taxes and spending; the next, as he made clear in his latest news conference, he is an accommodationist on those very issues. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, told Fox News on December 5, "Boy, there's such a gap between the clarity and focus of that campaign and the confusion of the [Obama] presidency." Until Obama re-establishes that focus, his personal engagement with Washington insiders won't make much difference.