Opinion Top of the Ticket

Hoping to break the stalemate, Obama takes GOP senators to dinner

President Obama had a dinner date Wednesday night with a dozen of his worst enemies, thus proving that the governmental stalemate in Washington, D.C., is driving him to unusual acts of political creativity -- or desperation. 

The president personally picked up the tab for the private dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, and the guests were all Republican senators, including John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Hoeven (N.D.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

Coming out of the hotel after the two-hour meal, the senators had nothing but nice things to say about the gathering. Most of the dinner discussion was about the deficit and budget issues, one unidentified senator told CNN. That might make a few Democrats uneasy, fearing Obama may be opening the way to a deal that will trade away too much, but senators who supped with the president indicated there was still a long way to go before anyone gave up anything. Nevertheless, one of the senators told CNN he and his colleagues saw a sincerity in Obama they had not perceived before and the result was “a very positive meeting.”

Next week, Obama is scheduled to have lunch at the Capitol with more GOP senators, and he is seeking a meeting with House Republicans as well. This is a significant shift for a president who, throughout his first term, was criticized by inside-the-Beltway critics for preferring cozy dinners with his family to cocktails with power brokers.

Personal contact has always been essential to getting things done in Washington and is even more important when governmental power is divided. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had to make deals with a Democratic Congress. In the 1990s Bill Clinton had to work out compromises with a Republican House. Reagan and Clinton were both champion schmoozers. But those were the days when there was still a functioning center in the House and Senate. Now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are so deeply divided and rigid in their ideology that it often appears they can barely stand to be in the same building, let alone at the same dinner table. In a political system already designed to divide power, the lack of people willing to reach out, give ground and cut deals has meant that Congress and the president have lurched from one confrontation to the next with little useful work getting done.

Criticized for the failure to come up with a budget bargain before automatic across-the-board budget cuts kicked in, Obama said at a recent news conference that he was “not a dictator” and could not just force Congress to do his bidding. If not a dictator, neither has he proved to be a savvy, hands-on politician in the style of Lyndon B. Johnson, Reagan or Clinton. The days when LBJ slapped backs, twisted arms and brokered deals with a few powerful committee chairmen are long gone, of course, and that makes a charm offensive less effective than it once would have been. But nothing else is working – not even taking his case to the people -- so Obama is giving charm a try.

Can hosting a dinner or showing up for lunch with Republicans do that much to soften the hard line they have taken on raising taxes on the rich or tampering with the wide-open market for firearms? It seems unlikely. On the other hand, at least some Republican lawmakers may have grown weary of appeasing the most vociferous loudmouths in their party. They may actually want to start governing again, too.

Disillusioned voters have run out of patience with elected officials in both parties who claim to speak for the American people but who have proved incapable of sitting down and speaking to each other. Obama’s dinner diplomacy is a very small but positive sign that do-nothing politicians may at last be ready to do something.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Retired, Pope Benedict will still be hanging around the house
    Retired, Pope Benedict will still be hanging around the house

    When Pope Celestine V quit his job in 1294, his successor locked him in prison and kept him there until he died. Pope Benedict XVI will not suffer the same sad fate. When he resigns Thursday, not only will he not be jailed, exiled or even sent to a retirement home. He will get to stay in the...

  • David Horsey cartoons
    David Horsey cartoons
  • Would it hurt City Hall to look into rise in worker injury claims?
    Would it hurt City Hall to look into rise in worker injury claims?

    The cost of paying salaries to Los Angeles civilian workers who are temporarily disabled because they have been hurt on the job has gone up 50% over five years, reaching $18 million last year. Employees are claiming more injuries and taking longer injury leaves. City officials don't know why...

  • Should non-citizens in the U.S. vote?
    Should non-citizens in the U.S. vote?

    As of Jan. 1, 2012, an estimated 13.3 million lawful permanent residents lived in the United States, and 8.8 million of them were eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship but had not done so. In California, 2.48 million out of 3.4 million green-card holders were eligible to apply but chose not...

  • Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises
    Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises

    Six months ago, President Obama's foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test
    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage...

Comments
Loading