It isn't just in foreign policy where President Obama leads from behind. I attended a couple of press breakfasts with members of Congress from both parties this week, and on two of the bigger issues on the agenda – immigration reform and an overhaul of the tax code – the lawmakers praised Obama for his hands-off approach.
On Wednesday, Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, and Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat – both members of immigration reform's so-called "Gang of Eight" – said that a lower profile Obama is a better Obama on the issue.
"I think he's played the right role so far," Flake said. "The outside cheerleader, if you want to call it that, that's been, I think, useful and effective. As a Republican it would be more difficult [if he were] out front and pushing this issue." There is a tendency among Republicans, after all, to oppose things Obama favors simply because he favors them. Bennet, who appeared with Flake at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, added: "He's been constructive in this process, allowing us to see how far we can get" in the committee process. "If things can continue the way they've been that would be very positive."
This morning Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., appeared at a Monitor breakfast with House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and sang much the same tune. "I think he, wisely, is looking at tax reform in the same way he has approached immigration, that is carefully," Baucus said. "In this climate it might not be wise to be too upfront too soon, too early because it may cause a bit of a storm." Camp added that "at this particular stage it may be appropriate to see what can the committees do? Is this real or not?" Let the process work without getting openly involved, in other words.
The key concept here is open involvement. Flake noted that he had spoken on the phone a couple of days earlier with Obama and said that the president has called others involved in the issue as well. "Frankly I think he has been helpful," Flake said.
Baucus too said that he has met with Obama on tax reform and that "I meet very frequently with his chief of staff [Denis McDonough] who, by the way, I find is very good. He's going out of his way coming up to the Hill, talking to members – House and senate – engaging Congress very, very deeply on lots of different issues." Politico made much the same point in an article today about White House outreach.
According to Politico:
When Obama wanted to blunt the sequester or enact new gun laws, he fanned out across the country, looking to build pressure on lawmakers by rallying their constituents. It was widely perceived as a failure. Now, the White House recognizes that it must have a real relationship with lawmakers before asking them to support something, according to sources involved.
It says something instructive about the state of our polarized politics that a president may do best who leaves the fewest fingerprints.
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