At his press conference on Monday, President Obama probably knew he’d have to defend his economic policies, his foreign policies, and his cabinet appointments. But he may not have expected to have to persuade the press that he’s…nice.
New York Times veteran reporter Jackie Calmes asked Obama whether he might be more successful with Congress if he reached out to opponents informally. “I’d like to ask you, now that you’ve reached the end of your first term, starting your second, about a couple of criticisms, one that’s longstanding, another more recent. The longstanding one seems to have become a truism of sorts, that you’re–you and your staff are too insular, that you don’t socialize enough.”
President Obama said he’d like to socialize with Republicans, but they haven’t responded to his invitations. The president has been criticized for being aloof and suffered from comparisons with the effervescent Joe Biden. Even as he answered the question, a trending hashtag appeared on Twitter: #ObamaNeedsFriends.
“Most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy,” he said. “And I like a good party.”
Politico reporter Glenn Thrush points out that House Speaker John Boehner “has been by the White House for most holiday parties–and he played that legendary round of golf with POTUS a couple of years back–but he declined Obama’s invitation to a screening of ‘Lincoln.’ So did McConnell, along with Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).” (Indeed, although Steven Spielberg and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones attended the screening, only Democratic legislators accepted the invitation.)
“House Republicans have routinely turned down White House invites (as Democrats did under Obama’s predecessor), with the high point of bipartisan schmoozing being a sparsely attended 2011 BBQ Obama threw for newly-elected Republicans after the 2010 midterms.”
One Republican freshman was asked the reason for not attending, and her office replied, “She declined because she chose not to go.”
Speaker Boehner has set something of a record of regrets. He has turned down six invitations to state dinners–for Britain, South Korea, Germany, China, Mexico, and India. Mitch McConnell also declined to attend the dinners for India and China, as well as a White House event celebrating his home-state University of Kentucky’s NCAA basketball championship.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Monday said that these invitations are not just handed out to everyone. “Boehner declined invitations to six state dinners. There are people in Washington who are dying to go to one state dinner. Really senior level House and Senate members have never been to a state dinner. I mean this list goes on and on.”
“Personal relationships are important and, obviously, I can always do a better job,” President Obama said at the press conference. “And the nice thing is, is that now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway,” he said. “So, I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house.”
But the president made it clear that inevitably, political niceties and legislative decisions do not go hand in hand. “I’m over here at the congressional picnic, and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family. I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them. But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”
Lawrence O’Donnell defined President Obama’s reply as a reminder “to the media that congressional behavior is the result of democracy.”
As Obama told the press corps, ”If the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes, you know, if — if they reject sort of uncompromising positions or sharp partisanship or always looking out for the next election and they reward folks who are trying to find common ground, then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud.”