What's with Obama and summits?
What's with President Obama and summits? No sooner had he adjourned his long-awaited meeting -- it has been 27 days since the election -- with newly empowered Republican congressional leaders Tuesday than he was announcing another summit on the Bush tax cuts. In a press conference, Obama even talked about inviting Harry Reid to Camp David. Have the two political branches of government become so estranged that simply discussing domestic policy with a half dozen Washington politicians requires all the careful planning and circumstance of Mideast peace talks? I can walk from the Capitol to the White House in 20 minutes. How did it take John Boehner and Mitch McConnell 27 days?
Old-school Washington journalists constantly remind the rest of us that the capital used to be a more collegial place, where presidents and presidents pro-tempore regularly assembled, it seems, to do things such as negotiate legislation or drink heavily, regardless of their ideological leanings. President Truman played poker in the Capitol building. President Johnson was on the phone with lawmakers constantly, his hayseed voice, which sounded as though he were gargling gravel, and country-boy vulgarities smoothing over political differences. Even those reputed to be more straight-laced managed to accomplish a lot with collegial bipartisanship. It took the close, unified effort of Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), the archetypical liberal Democrat, and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), the GOP minority leader, to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
By the last decade, though, these sorts of interactions were notable for their rarity. President Bush famously invited Ted Kennedy over to the White House theater for a screening of Kevin Costner's Cuban Missile Crisis drama, "Thirteen Days." The two passed No Child Left Behind together. Yet by the end of his presidency, Bush was known for his insularity from Congress. Obama tried early in his first term to interact more often with policymakers outside the White House -- it even seemed he would host some kind of regular cocktail hour. But his 2009 "summits" on health care and the budget, though worth trying, produced little more than a forced and fleeting rapport with Republicans. They symbolized a sort of artificial sincerity that these bipartisan meetings now so often produce. No replacement for frank and frequent interaction that's only reasonable to expect from leaders who work mere blocks away from each other.
This is hardly just the president's fault. Boehner and McConnell were the ones who delayed Tuesday's meeting for weeks after Nov. 2 with nothing but unconvincing and arrogant reasons for doing so. These leaders face strong political incentives not to appear to be too close to the president, literally or figuratively. GOP primary voters rejected Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I) after his famous embrace of Obama. A town hall crowd booed Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Olka.) for insisting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a "nice lady". The ease with which political differences are translated into personal animus -- the media, unyielding partisan activists and the politicians themselves all deserve blame -- is a flaw in American political culture. One that has become so pronounced that a two-hour sit-down between party leaders gets, well, folks like me writing pieces about how unusual they are.
Perhaps Democratic and Republican leaders will move closer over the next two years as they figure out how to share power. Then again, given the political forces keeping them apart, maybe some of them, particularly Republicans, will need a push. Earlier this year, Norm Ornstein suggested in The Post that Congress change its calendar such that lawmakers would spend more time in Washington, even relocating their families to the capital. "It is much harder to demonize your colleagues," he argued, "if you stand next to them watching your kids play soccer on Saturdays." Even if that happens, though, Obama will still have to take special care to make himself available to meet with Republicans, since when he goes to soccer games he's surrounded by armed bodyguards. He seems to be trying again, personally calling many Republican lawmakers since the midterm election and arranging for senior members of his staff to meet with top GOP staffers.
But, really, how hard can it be for top Democrats and Republicans to meet more often? Have these people never heard of evite? If it helps, Mr. President, why not gather on neutral ground? You, Boehner, McConnell, Reid and Pelosi are always welcome at my poker table. Buy-in is only a few billion in the form of bridges to nowhere.
| November 30, 2010; 4:43 PM ET
Categories: Stromberg | Tags: Stephen Stromberg
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