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Obama's Charm Offensive

[ Posted Monday, March 11th, 2013 – 17:25 PDT ]

President Obama changed political gears last week, and decided to take a new direction in his dealings with Republicans in Congress. This "charm offensive" will either later be seen as a meaningless photo-op gesture, or a brilliant strategic maneuver on the political chessboard. Time will tell. That golf game with John Boehner didn't really gain Obama much, to put it another way. But the political winds are a-changin' in Washington (as they tend to do), and if Obama is really serious about developing personal relationships with those in the opposition party who might possibly be open to deal-cutting, this time around a charm offensive might bear some political fruit. Obama is attempting a bold plan to exploit the existing disarray in the Republican Party, and largely bypass the entire Republican congressional leadership. If it works (and even, possibly, if it fails), this will only serve to widen the chasms within the GOP right in time for the next election. That's some pretty juicy political fruit indeed.

But one key to achieving this success will be a sustained effort on Obama's part. Obama can't just have one dinner and a lunch or two and then drop the whole idea. The president is notorious for not really enjoying glad-handling members of Congress (from either party, actually) in the way that, say, a Bill Clinton enthusiastically embraced. But being president (especially with a divided Congress) pretty much requires a higher amount of back-slapping events than Obama has previously managed. He just needs to work on his follow-through a bit more, and invite these folks to dinner so many times they lose count and the news organizations lose interest in the photo-op side of the story.

If Obama can manage to keep up the charm offensive, he stands to gain big by doing so. It's really a win-win situation for Obama, when you examine possible outcomes. We're going to assume, for the sake of discussion here, that Obama is serious about this effort and that it isn't just going to wind up as a couple of weeks of photo ops for him, to be forgotten (or laughed at) later. If Obama keeps up the charm, he's got a medium-term chance for legislative success and a longer-term chance for political success.

Obama and the Republicans seem to have agreed upon one thing already -- taking the American economy hostage every few months is stupid and self-destructive for the country as a whole. This is an enormous step for the Republicans, and must be acknowledged as such. They peered over the abyss in the fiscal cliff fight, and then caved at the last minute (actually, a few hours past the last minute, but who's counting?). In January, the Republicans in the House punted the debt ceiling down the road for months with absolutely no concessions gained -- which used to be their favorite hostage to take. The sequester didn't get solved, but the sequester is a much slower train wreck than a government shutdown or a government default, so it's the least bad of the three hostages to take (at least, as far as damage to the American economy). Right now, Republicans are moving legislation weeks ahead of what could become a government shutdown, which actually (for once) may give the two houses of Congress enough time to strike some sort of deal before the last minute (oh, be still, my beating heart...). The "continuing resolution" will likely get passed on time, with both sides claiming small victories but without a whole lot of change from where we are now, post-sequester.

The other big political change since the election is that Obama has become a much tougher negotiator. He won a huge political victory on the fiscal cliff -- the first time Republicans had voted to increase income tax rates in over two decades -- and he refused to back down in the bluff-calling game of the sequester. The Barack Obama of two years ago might have quickly caved on either or both of these issues, but this time he held a lot firmer in both showdowns.

Assuming that a continuing resolution of some sort passes before the deadline and we avert a government showdown, then the real legislative battle begins -- over next year's budget. This is what Obama is laying the groundwork for now. He's not charming Republican senators to gain leverage in the continuing resolution fight, he's looking ahead to the possibility of striking the "Grand Bargain" on the budget which has eluded him so far.

If it bears legislative fruit (as opposed to political fruit, which we'll get to in a moment), it could happen with the help of only a few dozen Republicans. If some Grand Bargain is struck, with reforms to Medicare and Medicaid but also with closing tax loopholes to raise revenue, Obama will need five or six Republicans in the Senate to go along with the Democrats -- plus a few more Republicans in case of Democratic defections (some Democrats might not vote for any plan which touches Medicare and/or Medicaid). Over in the House, if Obama convinced maybe 25-30 Republicans to vote with him (again, plus whatever is needed to counterbalance Democrats voting against the plan), a Grand Bargain could actually be struck.

Notice the total absence of the Republican leadership in this equation. Well, almost-total. The way it would actually work is that the Senate would pass a bill with bipartisan support. Pressure would mount on Speaker of the House John Boehner to allow a vote on the Senate bill. If there's time, a conference committee may allow a few bits of the House Republican budget to be added (or, more likely, subtracted) from the Senate bill, but eventually Boehner would be forced to pass a budget with support from most Democrats and a minority of the Republicans voting for it. So John Boehner will have a role to play, but not much of a leadership role. John Boehner is simply not to be believed when he strikes deals with Obama, so why even bother including him in the process? While Boehner will have a minor role, though, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be entirely irrelevant. Which is why neither man was on the invitation list to Obama's dinner last week -- they're not going to be the ones driving the effort, even on the Republican side of things in Congress.

Politically, Obama's playing a much longer-term game here, and the name of that game is "Win the House back in 2014!" Republicans are a battered brand, these days. Obama would be a fool not to recognize that, or to recognize what having Nancy Pelosi wield the Speaker gavel for the last two years of his term would mean for his legacy. The beautiful thing about the charm offensive for Obama is it might be successful whether a Grand Bargain can actually be reached or not. Say some sort of deal is struck. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is going to go bananas as a direct result. The Norquistians will be in high dudgeon. Beyond the fulminating, though, Tea Partiers will start targeting establishment Republicans in primary races with even more of a vengeance than currently exists. The "Purity First, Electability Second" folks may win some of these primaries with the next wave of Todd Akins (or Christine O'Donnells) -- which could lead to some surprising pickup opportunities for Democrats in 2014. Or consider what could happen if the Grand Bargain is not struck. With a very visible charm offensive to build upon, Obama will be able to say, "once again, I bent over backwards offering a hand across the aisle, only to have the extremists in the Republican Party swat it away." If the American public is tired of extremism from the Republicans, this could wind up winning enough House districts to flip the chamber to Democratic control. Suburban voters may be key here -- people who want to see deals struck and progress made from both parties.

Obama is, once again, projecting the "adult in the room" vibe with his current charm offensive. He's got nothing to lose at this point -- he'll never be up for re-election again. The upsides look pretty good for him, and the downsides look pretty minor. Either he strikes a Grand Bargain on the budget which will be remembered along with the rest of his legislative accomplishments, or he successfully exploits the already-existing deep division and disarray in the Republican Party heading into the midterm elections. No matter which way the chips fall, this will serve to diminish the stature of both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who will be minor players in the drama, at best.

Democrats have the power to pass things through Congress if they get public opinion on their side and if they split off enough Republicans to truly use the word "bipartisan" about whatever deal they strike. Obama is setting the stage for the next few months -- months which also may contain an intraparty Republican knife-fight over immigration. Charming Republicans who want to get a few things done could be the way to win these battles in Congress. I have no idea what the chances are for legislative success at this point, but I'm pretty sure that every time Obama breaks bread with a tableful of Republicans the chances get a little better. Let's hope Obama keeps up this charm offensive and doesn't just drop the effort after a few high-profile events. As a short-term photo-op it has already (briefly) changed the Washington conversation, but as a long-term strategy it could be quite fruitful for both Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

22 Comments on “Obama's Charm Offensive”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That was an absolute pleasure to read and, I can only hope and pray, as they say, that things play out precisely how you suggest they could!

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris,

    But the political winds are a-changin' in Washington (as they tend to do), and if Obama is really serious about developing personal relationships with those in the opposition party who might possibly be open to deal-cutting, this time around a charm offensive might bear some political fruit.

    I know that President Obama really is serious about building relationships because he has been following the advice from a very trusted advisor who truly believes, down to his core, that ...

    "all politics is personal. It's about building personal relationships, trust, exposure, and talking to people that really matters, particularly in foreign policy" ... and, if I may be so bold to add, it can work wonders in achieving legislative success and legacy promotion, too! :)

  3. [3] 
    Speak2 wrote:

    Hey Chris:

    Disagree that the sequester is better than default. Sequester is better than gov't shutdown, agreed, but default (breaching the debt ceiling) would actually be the best option.

    It is the only one of the "crises" that actually ensnares wide swaths of the really wealthy and the financial services industry. This group is, perhaps, the only ones with enough money and clout and risk to force the GOP to do a real turn around.

    Both gov't shutdown and sequester would hurt the middle class and poor. Sure, some of the wealthiest would earn less, but not like a debt-ceiling debacle.

    Just my two cents.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    Thanks. I got kind of annoyed at how some pundits seemed to be reading the cards all wrong, so I was inspired to write this.

    I kept coming back to fruit, though... maybe I needed to eat an apple or something...

    Speak2 -

    That is an interesting perspective, I have to admit. But wouldn't the little people get hurt if we defaulted? The blowback seems to be enormous...

    -CW

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Speak2,

    It sounds like cynicism has overtaken any sense you might have had if you really believe that a default would be good for anyone or that even the threat of a default didn't have long-lasting and deleterious impacts on average Americans that are still being felt.

    I mean, look around and see what's happening beyond the tip of your nose.

    It also may be instructive for you to review recent history with respect to financial crises.

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:
  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris,

    Looking forward to your take on Paul Ryan's big announcement today - a balanced budget in 10 years!

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Speak2,

    Just my two cents.

    Actually, that's about right.

    Sorry, I couldn't resist. And, besides, you left yourself wide open for that one.:)

  9. [9] 
    Speak2 wrote:

    LizM and CW:

    To reply to replies, I completely understand your responses and had considered the pain caused by a debt-ceiling breach. I don't really know that the middle class or poor get hurt worse by a debt-breach than by a gov't shutdown. And while the sequester is slow, it's going to do real damage to us working people. Basically, I see us as getting hurt if any of these crises come to pass.

    As others have eloquently stated, lurching from crisis to crisis is just the wrong way to run a country. For Obama, it also puts a real damper on his ability to accomplish anything else.

    However, other than some defense cuts put in place by the sequester, the debt crisis is really the only one of the three that puts people with real clout out of sorts.

    The sequester and gov't funding (CR) hurt us without hurting the influential nearly as much. The debt ceiling gets at them, as well.

    If we're going to end this crisis-to-crisis thing, then we need big money telling pols, "ENOUGH," in no uncertain terms (and threatening to withhold campaign contributions).

    While we would all be hurt by a debt default, I don't see the other two as ending the lurching, in general.

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    If we're going to end this crisis-to-crisis thing, then we need big money telling pols, "ENOUGH," in no uncertain terms (and threatening to withhold campaign contributions).

    While we would all be hurt by a debt default, I don't see the other two as ending the lurching, in general.

    Basically you are saying exactly what I have been saying since day 1...

    Putting band-aid after band-aid after band-aid on our economic system simply perpetuates a BAD system...

    Surely the more LOGICAL approach was to let the whole thing collapse and then build a better, more modern system from the ashes...

    It's completely ridiculous to try and save a system that is fundamentally flawed...

    Michale

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    It's also interesting to note that Obama's "charm offensive" began just as his poll numbers were dropping like a lead balloon...

    As such, there is little "charm" and is more likely an act of desperation...

    Michale

  12. [12] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Lol yes he must be scared about his re-election chances!

    Ah Michale-logic. It's amazing.

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    Lol yes he must be scared about his re-election chances!

    No...

    Democrats are afraid for THEIR re-election chances..

    You DO know that Democrats want to keep the Senate and win the House, right??

    Something funny happened on the way to Obama's Sequester..

    A> The American people are blaming Obama and not the Republicans...

    and

    2> Democrats have egg all over their face and dining daily on roasted crow...

    So, Obama had to come up with SOMETHING to change the narrative...

    Hence, the "charm offensive" which ain't charming and is very offensive.. :D

    Michale

  14. [14] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Both gov't shutdown and sequester would hurt the middle class and poor. Sure, some of the wealthiest would earn less, but not like a debt-ceiling debacle.

    This is an interesting perspective. It says so much about our current political state where the wealthy influence most of the conversation and the war against the government.

    Why a war against the government? Because if you can decrease government power (the power of people), you increase corporate power. Or so the theory goes I believe.

    If every situation is turned into a corporation negotiating with an individual person, the corporation will almost always win. This is why corporate America is so behind the "individual" (what they're really against is any form of organization which might limit their power).

    Anyways ... it's an interesting thought when it comes to politics because ... in order for any substantial change to be accomplished ... it seems the wealthy have to face a threat of some kind. Unfortunate ... .

    -David

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    Why a war against the government? Because if you can decrease government power (the power of people), you increase corporate power. Or so the theory goes I believe.

    Let's be fair...

    "War Against The Government" is a Democrat/Leftist construct that is long on fear-mongering and short of facts/reality..

    Much like the Democrat/Leftist "War On Women" construct..

    Michale

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:

    "War Against The Government" is a Democrat/Leftist construct that is long on fear-mongering and short of facts/reality..

    I mean, seriously..

    If The Left believes that Republicans are truly engaged in a "War Against The Government" then that is treason...

    So, have the courage to call a spade a spade... I mean, we have many on the Left (and some Weigantians) calling Republicans terrorists for their actions...

    Surely, traitors is not that illogical of a progression, eh?

    Let The Left make THAT argument and stand (or fall) on the merits of THAT argument...

    Michale....

  17. [17] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "War Against The Government"

    We can call it something different if you'd like ... how about dismantling of the government? Or re-purposing of the government? Conservatives would probably call it "limited government". I'll call it that for now so we can focus instead on why "limited government" though my guess is you're going to scream some more about what a victim of the Left you are.

    So why the limited government movement?

    Much of it is led and financed by corporate special interest groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce and ALEC, who are primarily interested in increasing the power of large corporations by:

    - Reducing the ability of the government to regulate for the common good
    - Changing the role of government to be about serving corporate interests, instead of the interests of the people
    - Redistributing the burden for payment onto the middle and lower classes

    I don't really care what you call it, Michale, but this is what's been happening for the past 40 years.

    Now don't get me wrong, I think there's plenty good about corporations and the private sector. I just think that there's also a lot of good in the public sector as well. And that, instead of arguing one or the other (the "big government" vs. "small government" false argument), we should be looking instead at where each succeeds and each fails.

    For example, its pretty clear that the financial industry needs government regulation. So having the appropriate government regulation here is a good thing.

    Government does a lot of good and simply privatizing it in every situation is not a good idea.

    -David

  18. [18] 
    Michale wrote:

    We can call it something different if you'd like ... how about dismantling of the government?

    How about sticking with the facts and calling it an attempt to eliminate government waste??

    I mean, seriously... Do we REALLY need to know why the majority of lesbians are fat??

    I don't really care what you call it, Michale, but this is what's been happening for the past 40 years.

    About as long as there has been obscene waste and fraud..

    What's your point??

    Government does a lot of good and simply privatizing it in every situation is not a good idea.

    Agreed.. So let's take and keep all the wheat and get rid of all the chaff.....

    What's wrong with that??

    Michale

  19. [19] 
    akadjian wrote:

    How about sticking with the facts and calling it an attempt to eliminate government waste?

    And eliminating any regulations corporations don't want. And shifting the tax burden onto the middle class and poor.

    Because let's be honest. Everyone loves government waste when it benefits their corporate backers. A couple examples are the military and standardized testing. How is "standardized testing" not big government, for example?

    So let's take and keep all the wheat and get rid of all the chaff.

    Nothing. Except probably what we both think of as wheat and chaff :)

    And ... those other things which are the real agenda. If conservatives want to talk about government waste I have no problem with that.

    All they have to do is stop talking about their tax cuts which shift the burden onto the middle class and poor. And getting rid of good regulations. And repealing the Affordable Care Act.

    -David

  20. [20] 
    Michale wrote:

    And eliminating any regulations corporations don't want. And shifting the tax burden onto the middle class and poor.

    While I'll be happy to concede that Corporations would LOVE to get rid of regulations that interfere with the bottom line, YOU must concede that a LOT of the regulations that Obama and the Democrats have imposed make absolutely NO SENSE and are hurting the economic recovery and are hurting the poor and middle class that they (Obama/Democrats) *claim* to care so much about...

    Because let's be honest. Everyone loves government waste when it benefits their corporate backers.

    Well, if we're being honest, you would have to qualify that "EVERYONE" claim..

    Cuz I sure don't and, while I am not "everyone" I am most assuredly "someone"... :D

    Nothing. Except probably what we both think of as wheat and chaff :)

    Truer words were never spoken..

    All they have to do is stop talking about their tax cuts which shift the burden onto the middle class and poor. And getting rid of good regulations. And repealing the Affordable Care Act.

    The ACA is one of those problems I mention above..

    Did you know that VETS are going to have to raise the costs of their medical services for Fido and Spot (Commander Data's cat) because the medical equipment they need are costing a lot more..

    By all means, explain to me the logic of that...

    Speaking of Commander Data....

    http://youtu.be/re1EatGRV0w

    Holodecks are right around the corner!!! :D

    Michale

  21. [21] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Well, if we're being honest, you would have to qualify that "EVERYONE" claim.

    Fair enough. To be more clear, let's say "most politicians".

    The point being that conservatives say they are against government waste, yet when it comes to waste which benefits their backers ... like standardized tests, for example ... they are all for it. If you think about it, standardized testing is just extra government regulation that not most teachers would say impedes teaching.

    Waste.

    YOU must concede that a LOT of the regulations that Obama and the Democrats have imposed make absolutely NO SENSE and are hurting the economic recovery and are hurting the poor and middle class that they (Obama/Democrats) *claim* to care so much about.

    Like what?

    Environmental regulations? Food safety regulations? Healthcare?

    You may not like these regulations. But they're not hurting the corporate bottom line.

    http://www.moneynews.com/Economy/corporate-profits-job-growth/2013/03/05/id/493136

    Corporate profits are hitting records, while individuals are still struggling.

    Now, of course, the corporate story is going to be "we're suffering under onerous regulations that are killing us". I don't see any evidence to back up this marketing, however.

    It looks more like corporations are doing great and simply are lobbying for more and more. I don't buy their story.

    -David

  22. [22] 
    Michale wrote:

    David,

    Like what?

    Did you know that VETS are going to have to raise the costs of their medical services for Fido and Spot (Commander Data's cat) because the medical equipment they need are costing a lot more..

    Michale

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